The United States Will Rejoin Paris Climate Accord

The move is one of several climate-related actions taken by President Joe Biden on his first day in office

Five construction cranes, a truck and a bus sit atop a dirt road alongside pipeline, flanking the right side of the image.
In another executive order, President Biden canceled permits for construction on the Keystone XL pipeline. Alberta construction of the pipeline is pictured here, taken in October 2020. Government of Alberta via Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On his first day in office, President Joseph R. Biden Jr. signed 17 executive orders, including one stating the administration’s focus on addressing climate change and rejoining the Paris Climate Accord. The international accord goes into effect for the U.S. in 30 days, on February 19.

President Barack Obama signed an executive order to commit the U.S. to the Paris Climate Accord in 2015 alongside a goal to reduce the country’s carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2025, from levels detected in 2005. In 2017, President Donald Trump moved to withdraw the U.S. from the accord, a decision which went into effect last November. By that point, the U.S. was only about halfway to the emissions reduction target.

As a part of the Paris Accord, participating countries are expected to create new climate action goals every five years. Because emissions reduction efforts were stunted during the previous administration, experts point out President Biden will need to enforce more aggressive environmental policies than his predecessors in order to get back on track. The World Resources Institute has proposed that the U.S.’s 2030 goal should be to reduce emissions by 45 to 50 percent from 2005 levels, Lili Pike reports for Vox.

Wednesday’s executive orders rolled back several actions that had loosened emission restrictions and another order halted the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, reports Jeff Brady at NPR.

“The fact that President Biden is coming out of the gate on day one really implementing the whole-of-government approach […] that will actually deliver ambitious emissions reductions consistent with the Paris agreement is the really exciting thing,” says the U.S. Director of the World Resources Institute Dan Lashof to Vox.

The Paris Accord is an international agreement between almost 200 countries to prevent global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—with a preferred cap of 1.5 degrees Celsius. The U.S. is the only country to have withdrawn from the accord. Meanwhile, other participating countries announced their new climate commitments in December.

"The window for meaningful action is now very narrow – we have no time to waste," says conservation scientist M. Sanjayan, the chief executive of the environmental advocacy group Conservation International, to NPR’s Nathan Rott. "President Biden's action today is certainly a step in the right direction."

The United Nations welcomed the U.S. back to the Paris Accord in a statement, and several world leaders did the same on Twitter. The U.S. is the second-greatest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China, and has emitted the most greenhouse gases overall. Most of the United States’ carbon emissions come from transportation, per Rott at NPR.

According to a Princeton energy modeling study, it is possible for the U.S. to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, but such a task would require $2.5 trillion in infrastructure spending over the next ten years, Vox reports. In 2019, the U.S. also did not provide the $2 billion in investments to the Green Climate Fund that it was obligated to contribute under the Paris agreement. The money would have funded sustainable climate adaptation projects in countries that bear the brunt of climate change’s effects despite contributing little to none to its causes.

“There’s still a very big chore to be done,” says Princeton University geoscientist and international affairs expert Michael Oppenheimer to the New York Times Coral Davenport and Lisa Friedman. Oppenheimer emphasizes that reversing and replacing regulations that changed under the Trump administration will take time, and any new rules “need to be stronger than the previous rules, or else the time lost by the Trump administration will not be regained.”

In the January 20 executive order, Biden revoked permits for Keystone XL Pipeline, which were initially granted in March 2019. The pipeline would have transported oil sands from Canada to the United States. Critics highlight the effect that this will have on construction workers building the pipeline, reports Brady for NPR, but supporters point out that the U.S. doesn’t currently need that oil.

"It's high-cost and high-carbon,” says Carbon Tracker’s head of climate, energy and industry research Andrew Grant to CNN’s Matt Egan. “If we're serious about hitting the Paris climate goals, this is exactly the kind of oil [project] that shouldn't be going ahead.”

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