30.11.2020

The US leaves the Paris agreement at midnight tonight. What happens next?

The US entered the agreement while Barack Obama was in office, with the official start date of US participation being 4 November 2016 – just four days before Mr Trump beat Hilary Clinton in that year’s presidential election.

At midnight tonight, across the United States the counting of votes in the presidential election will be well underway, but whichever way the race to the White House goes, as the clock strikes 12, one thing is certain – the country will be officially leaving the Paris climate agreement.

On June 1, 2017, Donald Trump announced the US would cease all participation in the 2015 Paris agreement, saying the aim to cut emissions and reduce the existential threat posed by the climate crisis would “undermine” the US economy, and put the country “at a permanent disadvantage”.

It has taken 1,253 days, but by Wednesday, the US – the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China – will no longer play a role in the largest international framework to mitigate the climate crisis.

The timing – the day of the US presidential election – is the combined result of the terms of withdrawal from the treaty, and the date the US first entered into it.

The terms of the agreement state that no country may decide to withdraw within three years of that start date, so on 4 November 2019, the White House gave the UN a formal notice of intention to withdraw. This process takes exactly one year, so the earliest date the US could be free of its obligations under the terms of the treaty is 4 November 2020.

The US elections are always held on “the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November”, meaning this year the election falls four days earlier than in 2016.

Countries around the world are already preparing for the US exit and at the UN General Assembly this month, China indicated it was poised to fill the vacuum.

Calling for a “green revolution”, President Xi Jinping announced a plan for China to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 and said the country would aim to have carbon emissions peak before the end of this decade.

But if Joe Biden beats Mr Trump in Tuesday’s election, he has pledged to rejoin the Paris agreement on his “first day” in office.

“I will join the Paris accord because with us out of it, look what’s happening. It’s all falling apart,” Mr Biden said in relation to the destruction of Brazil’s rainforests.

It would not be difficult for the US to rejoin the accord in principle – Joe Biden could sign an executive order accepting the agreement once again.

But his administration will also be expected to submit an intended nationally determined contribution (NDC) – which is a carbon reduction plan, which is designed to become more stringent every year.

Furthermore, the climate commitments made under Mr Obama will need to be reappraised, as the international community has increasingly focused on climate issues ahead of  the UN’s Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow next year.

Mr Obama pledged $3tn to a Climate Fund for the global south, but under Mr Trump, only $1tn has been paid, meanwhile the UK has called on all countries to double their financing commitments – meaning in principle the US is now $5tn ‘short’.

Green Party peer Natalie Bennett told The Independent: “The US returning to being a responsible member of the global community, acknowledging the massively destructive impact of its hypercapitalist economy with its giant impacts on the climate emergency and nature crisis, and taking a seat at the table to deliver real climate action, is clearly something we must all hope for.

“Joe Biden has pledged to rejoin the Paris accord on his first day of office, but this must be a bare minimum. We can’t go back to the incremental action pledged in the past.

“After four years of Donald Trump, we need transformative action that sets the US on a path to net zero as quickly as possible, while lifting millions of ordinary people out of this crisis. That plan is a Green New Deal.”

She added: “Whatever happens tonight, tomorrow and every day after that, Greens around the world will be fighting for this vision of climate justice.”

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