Towards the end of Tuesday night’s fractious presidential debate, moderator Chris Wallace dropped in a surprise question on the climate crisis, leading both candidates to lay out their opposing stances on the Paris Climate Accord.
“If you look at the Paris Accord, it was a disaster from our standpoint. And people are actually very happy about what’s going on because our businesses are doing well," President Trump said.
Former vice president Joe Biden vowed that, if he wins the election, “the first thing" he would do is rejoin the global agreement.
“I will join the Paris Accord because with us out of it, look what’s happening. It’s all falling apart,” he said, pointing to the rampant destruction of Brazil’s rainforests, happening in the vacuum of US diplomatic leadership.
Below is a breakdown of the background, significance and future prospects of the Paris Accord - and what it will mean for the US to re-enter or forge ahead with withdrawal.
What is the Paris Climate Accord?
Accord, agreement, deal, goals - whichever term you use it refers to one central aim, agreed upon by almost every nation in 2015, to avoid dangerous climate change by dramatically reducing the global greenhouse gas emissions which are heating the planet.
Countries set their own goals to try to curb global temperature rise, aiming to stay well below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, and pursue efforts to limit it to an increasingly ambitious 1.5C.
The consequences of the worsening climate crisis are happening all around us: vast melting of polar ice caps, rising sea levels and extreme weather.
Countries’ current pledges are not enough to meaningfully tackle the climate crisis, so the Paris agreement calls for more ambitious plans every five years. (Announcements had been expected at the 2020 climate change conference in the UK, which has been postponed until next November due to the Covid-19 pandemic).
The Paris deal also provides pathways for richer countries to help poorer ones, some of which are already bearing the brunt of the climate crisis, to reduced their emissions and adapt to a rapidly-changing planet.
Human-driven climate change has already caused about 1C of global heating above pre-industrial levels. The World Meteorological Organisation said in July that there is a 20 per cent chance global temperatures will hit 1.5C in at least one year between 2020-2024.
What did the US agree to?
The US, the world’s second-largest emitter, pledged to reduce emission levels by about 25 per cent by 2025 from 2005 levels. It is not on track to reach those goals.
The European Union pledged to cut carbon pollution in 2030 by 40 per cent from 1990 levels - a greater commitment than the US. The United Kingdom has already exceeded that goal, the AP reported.
A report by leading climate scientists last year also found that of the 184 climate pledges, 128 were not on track to contribute to reducing emissions by 50 per cent by 2030, including India and China.
As part of the Paris deal, Former President Obama pledged $3 billion toward the Green Climate Fund to help poorer countries adapt. Trump moved to withhold $2bn when he became president.
In 2019, 27 countries announced contributions totalling $9.8bn. The US refused to contribute.
Why does Trump call the Paris agreement a ‘disaster’ for the US?
Mr Trump has repeatedly mischaracterized the terms of the agreement, which are voluntary. Last October, he called it a massive wealth transfer from America to other nations and dubbed it “one-sided”.
The president announced his intention to withdraw in June 2017, saying it was an end to “the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country.”
After Mr Trump’s announcement a group of interdisciplinary scientists published a report looking at the implications of withdrawing and suggested that by the end of the century, the US could be about 5 per cent poorer with about $8trillion in losses.
A report produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development for the G20 also found that climate policy can boost growth and employment. The study indicated that G20 nations could see a 5 per cent increase in growth by mid-century with a strategies for carbon reduction and climate resilience.
“The US agreement is not a tax on the American people. There is no massive wealth transfer,” Climate Advisers CEO Nigel Purvis, who was a lead State Department climate negotiator in the Clinton and George W Bush administrations, told the AP. “In fact, the agreement obligates no country to make any financial payments.”
Regardless, on 4 November, 2019, the Trump administration formally notified the UN it would withdraw after the required one-year waiting period. (Part of the agreement was that no country could pull out in the first three years. Mr Trump did so on the first day possible.)
If Trump wins and the US officially withdraws, what happens next?
If Mr Trump wins, he can officially take the country out of the global pact on 4 November, the day after the presidential election.
The US is the only country to withdraw from the agreement and would join just a few countries who have not signed on. It will mean that while the US can still attend negotiations and give opinions, the country will be relegated to “observer status”.
US withdrawal would dampen global efforts to fight the climate crisis.
“Global objectives can’t be met unless everybody does their part and the U.S. has to play the game,” Appalachian State University environmental sciences professor Gregg Marland, who is part of a global effort to track carbon dioxide emissions, told the Associated Press last year.
“We’re the second biggest player. What happens to the game if we take our ball and go home?”
Countries around the world are already preparing for the US exit and at the United Nations General Assembly last week, China signalled it was ready to step up and 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 the decade.
MIT economist Jake Jacoby, who co-founded the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, said that the penalty for the US “is not in economic loss. The penalty is in shame, in discrediting US leadership".
If Mr Biden becomes president, he could get back into the deal but it would not necessarily be straightforward.
Jonathan Pershing, the State Department’s special envoy for climate change during the Obama administration told the New York Times that the country would likely be faced with lingering distrust on the international stage.
The US has pulled a similar move in the past when former president George W Bush took the US out of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, after it had been joined by his predecessor Bill Clinton.
The Associated Press contributed to this report