The U.S. Has Officially Rejoined the Paris Agreement — Here’s What You Should Know

Sion Hovsepian

The United States rejoined the Paris Agreement on February 19, 2021, in a worldwide effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions after former President Donald Trump withdrew in 2019.

The Paris Agreement is an international treaty on climate change that was adopted by 196 countries at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) in Paris on December 12, 2015, and entered into force on November 4, 2016. Its main goal is to limit global warming by limiting greenhouse gas emissions and legally obligates member nations to set emissions targets. Under Donald Trump’s presidency, the United States officially withdrew from the agreement in 2020. The main reasoning behind Trump’s withdrawal was the belief that the agreement would undermine the U.S. economy and result in permanent disadvantages.

Dr. Evan Lau, Biology Professor at Menlo College, speaks to the strength of the agreement in the face of these claims and why it is important that the United States participate: “Despite criticisms, the Paris agreement was an achievement and probably the first step toward future agreements to reduce the effects of climate change.” Under current President Joseph Biden, the nation officially rejoined it on February 19, 2021. “It is very good that we’re returning to the Paris Agreement as the USA is the 2nd biggest emitter of greenhouse gas (after China), and we have the know-how and technology to slow greenhouse gas emissions,” says Dr. Lau. 

As for the economic impact of the agreement, Dr. Lau has a different view from former President Trump: “These technologies have created many new jobs and will continue to grow in coming decades. Further research and development is also needed for currently non-feasible green technologies, such as industrial carbon capture and sequestration to bring them to maturity in future.”

Though the withdrawal was backed by many Republicans, it met strong opposition from Democrats, environmentalists, and scientists. President Biden announced early in his campaign that he would seek to rejoin the agreement, culminating in him signing an executive order to rejoin the accord on his first day in office on January 20, 2021.

Climate change is a priority for the Biden administration as the crisis worsens. What is important to know about the agreement is that “Global carbon emissions from fossil fuels have significantly increased in the past century and have brought about an increase of 2 degrees Celsius in average global temperature in the past 100 years,” Lau states. Furthermore, “If nothing is done, we are looking at a scenario of a 6°C global temperature increase. Moreover, the introduction of these technologies helps by reducing air-polluting particulate matter, as well as toxic emissions, which affect human health.”

Dr. Lau contends that the foundation for a transition to green energy is already in place: “Many low-carbon energy technologies are already in use (e.g., wind turbines, solar panels, hybrid and electric vehicles using lithium batteries) and can alleviate the pressure on both water and land on Earth, and some of the ‘green’ technologies are on the brink of reaching mass production capability (e.g., hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuel).”

Critics of the agreement and its potential effectiveness cite the impracticality of all member nations cooperating. For Dr. Lau, this is an issue of aligning incentives: “The problem of climate change is global. It takes climate activists across all continents to work together to combat climate change. No single country can do it alone. Climate activists have to work across countries to ensure compliance (working toward targets and follow timetables) by various countries, and that national policies are harmonized (to ensure widespread practice of compliance), and reduce waste and conflicts between the goals of various institutions within the country or region.”

The Paris Agreement is a sweeping global accord that unifies powerful nations under one goal. However, combating climate change also requires cooperation at the local level. Dr. Lau sets forward goals that can be achieved right here at Menlo College: “Menlo College can aim to achieve net-zero [carbon] emissions, meaning that for every ton of carbon released from the geosphere into the atmosphere (e.g., through mining, drilling, and burning of fossil fuels, etc.), one ton must be returned to the geosphere, either through natural means like absorption in oceans, soil, and plants, or through industrial carbon capture and sequestration.” Dr. Lau provides actionable solutions toward reaching net-zero emissions: “Putting up solar panels so that the college relies less on the grid, making the cafeteria carbon-neutral in power usage, storing the energy generated by gym-users and capturing biogas from the toilets to supplement power usage on campus.”

The Paris Agreement has already set meaningful steps to achieve its end goal. “Businesses and governments have also shown an increased willingness to put a price on carbon, as evidenced by China’s announcement that it will expand its carbon trading market to eight major industries and the Canadian prime minister’s direction to provinces to enact a carbon tax or cap-and-trade scheme by 2018” (Climate Nexus). The agreement has also spurred widespread investment in green technology. It remains to be seen if the United States’ reentry into the agreement will accelerate the Agreement’s global effect.

The photo at the top of this article: Solar panels stand in front of rows of trees at the Baldock Solar Highway project site. “Solar panels in the mist” by OregonDOT is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Sion Hovsepian is a junior at Menlo College, majoring in Psychology, and to graduate in May 2022. Born in Hamburg, Germany, he is fluent in English, German, Armenian, and some Spanish. His areas of knowledge include critical thinking, digital humanities, and diversity in the workplace.