The World of International Organizations

Five years on, Paris climate accord recharges

Actors Jane Fonda and Sam Waterston were among the activists arrested for unlawfully demonstrating against climate change by the U.S. Capitol in January 2020 (AN/Ted Eytan)
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World leaders honored five years of the 2015 Paris Agreement at a virtual summit on Saturday energized by U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s vow to rejoin the landmark climate treaty on his first day in office.

The “Climate Ambition Summit,” organized by the United Nations along with Britain, Chile, France and Italy, drew heads of state and government officials from more than 70 nations. It largely served to recharge a climate accord weighed down by U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the world’s second-biggest carbon emitter from its nearly universal efforts to rein in global warming.

“The United States will rejoin the Paris Agreement on day one of my presidency, and I’ll immediately start working with my counterparts around the world to do all that we possibly can, including by convening the leaders of major economies for a climate summit within my first 100 days in office,” Biden said in a statement on his transition team’s website.

“U.S. leadership was essential to negotiating Paris and indispensable to bringing the agreement into force,” he said. “Over the last four years, however, the world has lost that momentum, and nations and people in every part of the world are feeling the devastating impacts of a changing climate. We haven’t come close to the bold action that’s needed, and today, we have no time to waste.”

Recapping his campaign pledges, Biden said that as soon as he becomes president on January 20, the United States will “increase the ambition of our domestic climate target and put the country on a sustainable path to achieve net-zero emissions no later than 2050. We’ll elevate the incredible work cities, states, and businesses have been doing to help reduce emissions and build a cleaner future.”

The United States became the first nation to formally withdraw from the Paris climate treaty last month, jeopardizing international efforts at curbing the worst impacts of global warming this century. The U.S. withdrawal fulfilled the notification to the United Nations that the Trump administration delivered precisely one year earlier. Under the treaty, U.S. readmission would take effect in February.

A global ‘climate emergency’

The treaty committed nations to “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C. above pre-industrial levels.” Experts say the world has already warmed by 1.2 degrees since then, so the choice is really between another 0.8 degree or half-degree more warming.

In September, Chinese President Xi Jinping, sharpening his differences with Trump, told the U.N. General Assembly that his nation — the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, methane and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases mainly from fossil fuel burning — plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. Despite China’s heavy reliance on carbon-emitting coal to produce electricity, Xi said his nation would undergo a “green revolution” to achieve its goal of net-zero carbon emissions.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres urged world leaders to acknowledge that the planet faces an existential crisis. Earlier this week, the U.N. Environment Program cited a huge “gap” between what nations are willing to do and what they must do to fight climate change. UNEP said the planet is on track for an average temperature rise “in excess of 3 degrees Celsius this century” from pre-industrial levels, despite the COVID-19 pandemic leading to a 7 percent drop in greenhouse gas emissions from less industry, power use and travel this year.

“Five years after Paris, we are still not going in the right direction,” Guterres told the virtual climate summit on Saturday. “Paris promised to limit temperature rise to as close to 1.5 degrees as possible. But the commitments made in Paris were far from enough to get there. And even those commitments are not being met.”

Guterres asked if anyone could honestly deny that the world faces a giant climate emergency. “That is why today, I call on all leaders worldwide to declare a ‘state of climate emergency’ in their countries until carbon neutrality is reached,” he said, adding that 38 nations, including members of the European Union, have already made such a declaration. “I urge all others to follow.”

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