WASHINGTON – At midnight on Wednesday, when the United States became the only country to officially leave the Paris Agreement, the global deal meant to avert catastrophic climate change, it delivered on a campaign pledge Donald J. Trump had made four years ago.
But a lot has happened in those four years.
The costs of climate disasters have increased. Banks and investors began to shift away from fossil fuels as the price of renewables plummeted. Most importantly, the United States’ main allies have rushed to set their own climate action goals. Britain, the European Union, Japan and South Korea have all said they will aim to neutralize their own emissions of the planet-warming gases by 2050. And, in a clever move to eclipse whoever is the next White House occupant, China too, has announced its own net zero ambitions.
“The rest of the world has confirmed that it will not stop action on climate change,” said Lois M. Young, Belize’s ambassador to the United Nations who, as chair of the Children’s Alliance Island states, represent some of the countries most vulnerable to sea level rise.
Ms Young said she hoped the United States would re-engage the Paris Agreement in order to minimize the worst climate risks facing countries like hers. “The fact that the country that has contributed the most to climate change is now officially outside the Paris Agreement, and may remain so for at least the next four years, is a dismaying thought,” she said. .
The outcome of the US presidential election remained unclear on Wednesday, and with it, the future of the role the United States will play in the fight against climate change. If President Trump wins, the United States will almost certainly stay out of the deal for at least four years, making it difficult, if not impossible, to slow the rise in global temperatures.
If former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. wins, he will bring the United States back in February 2021. But joining the Paris Agreement will be the easier part. The United States would find that it has a lot of catching up to do to both reduce emissions and restore trust with its international allies.
Teresa Ribera, Spain’s environment minister, said the election results would show whether the United States is becoming “a confrontational power or a constructive power” on climate change.
It has not been lost on Ms. Ribera, a veteran of international climate negotiations, that Washington has already made an about-face, in particular on the Kyoto protocol. The United States joined this global climate treaty in 1997 under the Clinton administration and withdrew in 2001 under President George W. Bush.
Many countries, Ms. Ribera said, are keen for the United States to re-engage in the Paris agreement. But they are also wary of promises Washington cannot keep and are prepared to continue to act on their own if necessary.
“Credibility is very difficult to gain and very easy to lose,” Ms. Ribera said. “It may take some time to restore credibility.”
Todd Stern, who was sent on climate change under President Barack Obama, echoed this. After four years of a US president denouncing the Paris Agreement and poking fun at climate science, he said, it won’t be easy to suddenly make demands on other countries.
“I think the most important thing for the United States is to come out very strong and resolutely on the home side,” Stern said. “We have to demonstrate that this is really a very high priority and that the new president is moving ahead at full speed.”
Mr Stern said rebuilding confidence would require broad diplomatic outreach and aggressive climate action at the national level. America’s ability to do this depends not only on who the next president will be, but also on the makeup of the Senate, which also remains in play.
According to Carbon brief, a climate analysis site, announcements from the European Union, China, Japan and South Korea put nearly half of global carbon dioxide emissions under net zero emissions targets, this which means that they would eliminate as much climate pollution as they emit into the atmosphere.
It is, of course, minus the United States.
“The world has changed,” said Byford Tsang, who follows climate diplomacy for London-based research organization E3G. “This election would not change the direction of global climate action, but it can change the pace of global climate action.”
Mr Biden said he would spend $ 2 trillion over four years to move away quickly from coal, oil and gas, and has set a goal of eliminating fossil fuel emissions from the production of electricity by 2035. By mid-century, Mr. Biden has vowed that the entire US economy will be carbon neutral.
That, combined with promises from other nations, could make it realistic to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping global temperatures at safe levels. The deal is structured around a kind of global peer pressure. Each country sets its own targets for slowing the growth of its emissions or, in the case of industrialized economies, reducing its emissions.
Mr. Biden made no specific promises regarding the Paris Agreement other than that he would re-commit the United States to achieving its goals and “go much further.” He said he would “lead an effort to get every major country to increase its ambition of its national climate goals” and “stop countries from cheating.”
Currently, the United States is about halfway to meeting the Paris Agreement target set by Mr. Obama to reduce emissions to about 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. A Biden administration is expected to set a new goal by the time leaders meet for the United Nations. Glasgow climate summit scheduled for November 2021.
It remains unclear whether Mr. Trump in a second term could rally other countries to undermine the Paris Agreement, or whether a Biden administration would successfully lean on other countries.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who echoed Mr. Trump’s rejection of climate science, is unlikely to change his position, some analysts say. Mr Biden could exert stronger pressure on Mr Bolsonaro over environmental degradation and human rights.
India, for its part, is unlikely to shake off its appetite for coal overnight, although a Biden administration could push India to accelerate its renewable energy expansion, this towards what investors are heading anyway.
“The market case works independently of Biden or Trump,” said Samir Saran, president of the Observer Research Foundation, a research group in New Delhi. “Of course, strong leadership catalyzes that.”
Saber Chowdhury, a member of parliament from Bangladesh who has been involved in international climate negotiations for a decade, said he hoped a renewed US commitment to climate action would spur increased funding for countries poor and access to new technologies to switch from dirty energy to clean energy.
President Obama has pledged $ 3 billion to the Green Climate Fund to help poor countries fight climate change. It provided $ 1 billion of the promised funding before President Trump stopped payments.
“America is swimming against the tide,” said Mr. Chowdhury. “We realize more and more that time is running out.”