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What the world expects of Biden – The Island

US re-entering the Paris Agreement on Climate Change:

By Dr Janaka Ratnasiri

At the outset, let me congratulate President-Elect (PE) Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris (KH) on their historic win at the recent Presidential election. PE Biden made history by receiving the highest ever number of popular votes in any presidential election, while KH made history by being the first woman to be elected as the US Vice President, particularly with South Indian and West Indies parentage. It was reported in media that PE Biden had stated that one of the first initiatives he would take as President of USA would be to re-enter the Paris Agreement on Climate Change (PACC) from which the US withdrew after President Donald Trump assumed office in 2017. The purpose of this write-up is to highlight the implications of the US withdrawal from the PACC and its re-entry.



The nations adopted the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the UN Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 to adopt collective measures to arrest the global warming caused by uncontrolled emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) and, thereby, avoid any long-term climate change having many adverse impacts globally. In the UNFCCC, countries are divided into three groups, the first numbering 36 as listed in Annex I to the UNFCCC document, comprising developed countries as well as countries with transition economies (mostly Eastern European countries), the second numbering 25 comprising developed countries as listed in Annex II and the third comprising developing countries referred to as Non-Annex I counties.

The division into Annex I and Non-Annex I Parties was based on the Parties’ per capita emissions rather than on the total emissions, which are high in Annex I Parties than in Non-Annex I Parties. The UNFCCC requires the Annex I Parties comprising developed countries to take the lead in combatting climate change and its adverse effects, and to reduce their emissions back to 1990 levels by the year 2000 through voluntary measures. Non-Annex I Parties comprising developing countries are required only to take climate change considerations into account, to the extent feasible, when formulating their social, economic and environmental policies, and employ measures with a view to mitigate or to adapt to climate change.

The UNFCCC also requires all parties to submit periodic national communications (NC) incorporating GHG inventories of sources and sinks, and description of measures taken towards mitigation and adaptation as well as information on training, research, capacity building and public awareness programmes on climate change. Annex I Parties are required to submit their NCs regularly while Non-Annex I Parties are required to submit their NCs as and when funds are made available for that purpose. Sri Lanka has submitted only two NCs so far, the Initial NC in 2000 and the second NC in 2011. The third NC is under preparation beginning 2016 and is expected to be finalized in 2020, for which the Global Environment Fund contributed USD 654,300 (UNDP Website). The Ministry of Environment is the National Focal Point for UNFCCC in Sri Lanka responsible for preparing the NCs.



With growing evidence of climate change coming from all parts of the globe by way of increased frequency of extreme climatic events such as floods, droughts, heavy storms; increasing rates of glacier melting; change of rainfall patterns and a significant increase in global average temperature in recent years, and recognizing that the commitment for developed countries to reduce their emission levels back to 1990 levels is insufficient, prompted the Parties to UNFCCC to adopt the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change (KPCC) in 1997 which made it mandatory for Annex I Parties to reduce their GHG emissions to levels below their 1990 levels. Each country was assigned a specific reduction commitment to be achieved within the 5-year period of 2008-2012 below their 1990 levels of emissions, with an average reduction commitment of 5%.

During the 5-year period 2008-2012, many countries, particularly the European countries, were successful in reducing their emissions as required. It is noteworthy that several industrialized developing countries such as China, India and Brazil categorized as Non-Annex I Parties are exempted from any emission reduction commitments because they have low per capita emissions, while at the same time, they emit high overall amounts of GHGs. This was a thorny issue not acceptable to countries like USA, Canada and Japan who wanted these high emitting countries also to undertake reduction commitments, which countries like China and India vehemently opposed. This dispute resulted in these developed countries withdrawing from the KPCC.



At the 15th Conference of Parties (COP15) held in Copenhagen in 2009, UNFCCC was due to decide on the terms of extension of KPCC beyond 2012 and several proposals were in the agenda. Several developed countries including those in the European Union were willing to undertake enhanced reductions. A committee comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) was appointed to work out the details and present its recommendations to the Plenary. They had almost finalized a scheme recommending enhanced mandatory commitments to be undertaken by developed countries during the 5-year period 2013-2017 by closing time of the last day of the conference.

However, at the 11th hour, in an unprecedented move, USA President Barack Obama barged into the closed room where the BRICS committee meeting was held and made an intervention, which no one else would dared to have done. He announced that USA would pledge to get developed countries to mobilize funds to the extent of USD 100 billion a year by 2020 to finance projects in developing countries that would reduce their emissions. Trusting President Obama’s word, both China and India changed their stance hitherto held and agreed to undertake voluntary reduction commitments.

President Obama took a step further and proposed that even the developed countries should undertake only voluntary emission reductions rather than mandatory reductions as decided by KPCC. Surprisingly, the BRICS committee agreed to this proposal without raising any objection. He emphasized that developed countries should be left to decide to what extent they should reduce carbon emissions without being prompted by the KPCC. It may be noted that Annex I Parties had collectively reduced GHG emissions from fossil fuel burning from 30,950 MtCO2Eq in 1990 to 25,647 MtCO2Eq in 2018, a 17.1% reduction, with 11 Parties non-complying (UNFCCC website).

The intervention made by President Obama was tabled at the Plenary where it was taken note of, but was incorporated into the COP15 report which said that “developed countries commit to a goal of mobilizing jointly USD 100 billion dollars a year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries. This funding will come from a wide variety of sources, public and private, bilateral and multilateral, including alternative sources of finance. A significant portion of such funding should flow through the Copenhagen Green Climate Fund (GCF) to be established”. This arrangement was referred to as the Copenhagen Accord (CA). It was further decided that the modality of implementation of this Accord should be completed by 2015.



With the proposal made at COP15 in 2009, UNFCCC took 6 years of negotiations for a consensus to be reached on the modality of implementing the CA. Finally, a decision was made in this regard at COP21 held in Paris in 2015, resulting in the adoption of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change (PACC). This incorporated the mandate given in the CA for undertaking voluntary emission reductions applicable to all countries. Developing countries agreed for undertaking these commitments on the understanding that they would receive adequate financial assistance for implementing projects that would reduce their emissions. This was clearly evident from speeches made by Heads of States at the Paris conference including Sri Lanka’s.

The key aim of PACC is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise within this century well below 2 degrees Celsius (C) above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5o C. To reach this goal, appropriate financial flows, a new technology framework and an enhanced capacity building framework are expected to be put in place, thus supporting action by developing countries, in line with their own national objectives.

During the COP21, many heads of states made pledges for providing finances during 2016-2020, totaling USD 48 billion. Among the key contributors are Japan (USD 10B), EU (USD 11B), UK (USD 8.7B), France (USD 6.6B), Italy (USD 4 B) and USA (USD 4B) (Ref: UNFCCC website). It is noteworthy that USA which spearhead the abolition of mandatory emission reductions by developed countries and getting developing countries on board with them on the promise of mobilizing USD 100 billion annually by 2020, pledged only a paltry USD 4 billion contributions up to 2020. However, according to UNFCCC website, the actual amount received from USA to date amounted to only USD 1 billion.

In addition, several multilateral banks operating in Asia, Africa and globally pledged finances up to USD 160 billion by 2020. In addition, the European Investment Bank provided €3 billion in climate finance to developing countries in 2018. To date, the GCF is supporting 143 projects in countries in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia-Pacific covering mitigation, adaptation and cross-cutting sectors, for which USD 21 billion has been allocated. However, the actual amount collected to date is only USD 10 billion (GCF Website).



President Donald Trump who assumed duties in January 1917 felt that the PACC is disadvantageous to USA bringing benefits to other countries at the expense of American tax payers. He said this in a press briefing held at the White House Rose Garden on 01.06.2017. He further said that Americans stand to lose over 2.5 million jobs by 2025, reduced wages, shuttered factories affecting the economy badly if USA stayed in the PACC. He also said that under the PACC, China and India will be allowed to build more coal power plants while USA is debarred from building any, and that USA’s vast energy resources will have to be kept under lock and key without being able to generate employment for people in exploiting these resources.

One assertion made by President Trump was that no one knows where the money collected from developed countries go to. The Green Climate Fund’s website lists exactly 143 projects that are underway in Non-Annex I countries. The total amounts for each are listed, along with the anticipated benefits. It is obvious that President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the PACC is based on misinformation which probably would have been provided by his advisers.

President Obama, on the other hand, said at the COP21 meeting where the PACC was adopted that USA had taken many initiatives to reduce carbon emissions including building many renewable energy projects such as wind and solar energy plants, adopting energy efficiency systems and introducing standards on power plant emissions and phasing out fossil fuel use, and that these activities have created a large number of new employment opportunities while at the same time keeping the environment clean.

Though President Trump wanted to withdraw from the PACC with immediate effect as announced at the press briefing held in June 2017, the official notification of withdrawal was submitted to the UNFCCC Secretariat only on 04.11.2019. As such, the withdrawal took effect only on 04.11.2020, as per PACC provisions. On this occasion, Chile, France, Italy, UK and UN Climate Change issued the following joint statement on 04.11.2020.

“On 12 December we will be celebrating the five-year anniversary of the Paris Agreement. We must ensure that it is implemented in full. We note with regret that the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has formally come into effect today. As we look towards COP26 in Glasgow, we remain committed to working with all US stakeholders and partners around the world to accelerate climate action, and with all signatories to ensure the full implementation of the Paris Agreement” (UNFCCC website).



The international community would welcome the decision made by PE Biden to re-enter the Paris Agreement. He should be conscious of the fact that the entire group of developing countries gave their consent to undertake emission reductions placing trust on President Obama’s assurance that he would mobilize USD 100 billion annually up to 2020 to meet the costs incurred by them in undertaking projects that will reduce carbon emissions.

If this pledge is kept, by now there should be USD 500 billion collected in climate funds, but the amount collected so far does not come anywhere close to this figure as described before. With President Trump withdrawing from the PACC, all these developing countries who undertook commitments were left high and dry. PE Biden will therefore have to take off from where President Obama left for collecting funds for climate financing. To honour the pledge given by President Obama, PE Biden has an obligation to make a substantial contribution towards the climate fund from USA sources including the private sector.

Even within USA, emission reduction targets made by President Obama set in 2009 in Copenhagen, as announced in his speech made at COP21 meeting, that USA will reduce its carbon emissions in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 has not been kept. According to GHG emission data on fossil fuel burning posted in the UNFCCC website, the reduction between 2005 value of 7,392 MtCO2Eq and 2018 value of 6,676 MtCO2Eq (the latest available) is only 9.67% which is far below the target. Though he has set a new target of 26 – 28 % reduction below 2005 levels by 2025, it is unlikely this target would be met, unless PE Biden makes a concerted effort to enhance the emission reductions.



Biden’s decision to re-enter the PACC and continue its original financial commitments will certainly restore the confidence the developing countries had in the US as a leading partner in making the planet Earth a safe place for the future generations. People should be able to live without fear of adverse impacts of climate change such as flooding, land-slides, draughts and sea level rise inundating low-lying coastal habitats. These impacts are felt in all countries irrespective whether they are developed or developing, but the developing countries lack the adaptive capacity to meet the adverse impacts.

The international community looks forward to seeing Biden take initiatives to fulfill the commitments made by the US and expects him to meet these commitments pledged by President Obama in encourage the developing countries to undertake reduction commitments. The US could also demonstrate its commitment to prosperity of nations while ensuring rights of people to live in peace by removing unjust trade sanctions imposed on countries having different ideologies. Biden could bring about a change and make history.

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