EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

After the tragic events that took place in Washington D.C. on the 6th of January 2021, which the world has looked upon with apprehension, the mandate of the newly elected 46th President of the United States will start with the roll back of some of the most contested policies of the Trump presidency and focus on “four overlapping and compounding crises”: the pandemic, the economic downturn, racial inequity and climate change. It is this very last point that might be the most challenging. Nevertheless, one does not exclude the other and the resolution of one of the four crises can, in a synergistic way, positively affect the resolution of the others.

The climate policies of Trump and Biden couldn’t be more divergent. What will be the impact of the new Biden Administration on the implementation of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and on the EU climate policy?

The Paris Agreement and the EU climate policy regain strength

President Joe Biden set an ambitious climate agenda during his campaign, both domestically and internationally. On the latter level, many of his policy proposals were outlined in accordance with the EU Green Deal, the guiding framework for the European Union to reach climate neutrality by 2050. One of Biden’s main aims is to fully decarbonize the US energy sector by 2035. In order to achieve this goal, he proposes a 2 trillion dollars package to heavily invest in the offshore wind energy sector (with major plants in Florida and Virginia), solar power and in the electric vehicle industry, while gradually phasing out fossil fuel cars and slashing fossil fuel subsidies. The President’s plan is a reminder of three core concepts: standards, investments, and justice (SIJ), at the centre of virtually every climate plan released over the past few years, including the EU Green Deal.

The new administration firmly believes that the energy transition is an extraordinary opportunity not only for the environment, but also for the US industry and economy. In line with his promise, on his first day in office, president Biden signed an executive order to rejoin the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, from which his predecessor formally withdrew on 4th November 2020, as he believed that the treaty would have imposed “draconian financial and economic burdens” on the country. Such action, which can be ascribed to the so called “Withdrawal Doctrine”, has resulted in a threat to multilateralism and to international cooperation in general.

The Paris Agreement has been hailed as “the world’s greatest diplomatic success”, “a monumental triumph for people and our planet” and, finally, “a resounding success for multilateralism”. Without the United States, the second most polluting country in the world (responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions), the obligations of the remaining Parties to the Agreement would have been aggravated and the overall effectiveness of the treaty would have been undermined. In light of the “Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities” (CBDRRC) Principle, the most significant guiding principle in the international climate change regime, countries must contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions on the basis of the historical dimension of the pressures their societies have placed on the global environment. As a major historical and current emitter, United States’ will to rejoin the treaty is a significant move for the international community. António Guterres, the UN secretary general, said: “It is a very important signal. We look forward to a very active US leadership in climate action from now on as US leadership is absolutely essential. The US is the largest economy in the world, it’s absolutely essential for our goals to be reached”.

And an active US leadership in climate action is precisely what Biden intends to pursue: within the first 100 days of office, he will host a world climate summit with the world’s major economies. Moreover, he cancelled the Keystone XL pipeline and ordered development of a new accounting mechanism to account for the social costs of carbon emissions. Coupled with the rejoining of the Paris Agreement, which will enter into force for the US on 19 February 2021, he will put the country on a sustainable path to achieve net-zero emissions no later than 2050, aligning its climate policy with the EU’s pledge to become the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050.

This means the EU will gain a strong new ally in its fight against climate change, but it will also need to ramp up its own climate action in order to maintain its position as a global climate leader. In December 2020, the EU committed to an updated goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 55 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, up from the previous pledge of 40 percent. Now the EU and its Member States must ensure this new target gets implemented, bringing the bloc on track to reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.

With the US on board, the club of countries pledging to become climate-neutral by mid-century has grown considerably, bringing hope that the goal of keeping the global temperature rise at 1,5°C is achievable. Major economies such as the United Kingdom, Japan and the Republic of Korea, together with more than 110 other countries, have also pledged carbon neutrality by 2050, and China has pledged to get there before 2060. This means that 50 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product, and about 50 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions, are now covered by a net-zero commitment. This presents an opportunity for the EU and the US to join efforts in climate diplomacy and use the momentum to attract other major emitter such as India or Canada to embrace the low-carbon transformation.

The climate crisis and future generations’ rights can’t afford any delay

With the change in the White House, the Paris Agreement and the EU climate policy have regained strength and the world can, for a moment, take a breath of fresh air.

The United States, along with the European Union and its Green Deal, now need to ensure that the Paris Agreement remains the indispensable multilateral framework for tackling climate change as the “climate crisis cannot afford any delay”: “time is running out to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius and build more climate-resilient societies that help to protect the most vulnerable.”

A major step towards the reinforcement of social justice and the human rights regime, highly interconnected with the international climate change regime, has been taken.

Global climate crisis caused by human activities raises serious issues of justice between present and future generations. With the United States “on board”, the world has better chances to respect the Principle of Intergenerational Equity (that finds its root in the Sustainable Development Principle, which represents the context for the implementation of the Paris Agreement) and fulfill our responsibility towards the future generations: only in this way can we guarantee to pass on a common heritage that is no worse than the one we have received.

Charlotte Bufano





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