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Climate Change

About Time: The U.S. Rejoins the Race Against Climate Change

by Isatis M. Cintron-Rodriguez
February 22, 2021

The U.S. has rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement. Yet, the celebrations will be short-lived as we need to deliver a climate-resilient future for everyone. Are we up to the task?

At the end of February, the United States officially rejoined the Paris Agreement as President Biden tries to restore his country’s global climate leader position. He has vowed to prioritize the climate crisis at the forefront of his domestic and foreign policy. The celebration will be short, now the real work begins as the U.S. needs to step up and deliver stronger targets for a clean and climate-resilient future for everyone. Climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 and it poses a threat to our society and our economy. The urgency of a changing climate is clear, but how did we get here and what will it take to reverse the alarming trends?

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From Kyoto to Paris

International efforts to avert the brunt force of the climate crisis have been debated since the early 1990s. In general, governments agree on the science behind climate change, but things get complicated when it comes to responsibility and emission reduction procedures. The annual forum called the Conference of the Parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, produced the Kyoto Protocol as the first binding climate treaty under international law. It established top-down legally binding emission reduction targets but only for developed countries. Even though some emission reduction progress agreed to under the KP has been accomplished there is still more to go. 

The 21st United Nations Climate Conference in Paris, COP21, was a historic turning point. A total of 195 parties from both developed and developing countries, unanimously decided to tackle climate change with the goal of limiting global average temperature warming “well below” a 2°C (2.6°F) and pursuing efforts to keep it below 1.5°C (2.7°F) target. This global consensus to intentionally shift the course of the global economy would protect the most vulnerable and improve the lives of everyone in the world. Unlike the top-down regime of the Kyoto Protocal, the countries under the Paris Agreement voluntarily set emission reduction targets based on their national interest and the globally agreed-upon goal. Currently, 189 countries representing 97% of global emissions have submitted commitments to reduce emissions and prepare for the unavoidable impacts of climate change.


Activists hold a banner while blocking a major intersection during climate protests in Washington, DC on September 23, 2019; Getty

Activists hold a banner while blocking a major intersection during climate protests in Washington, DC on September 23, 2019;


What are some key elements of the Paris Agreement?

  • Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) A country’s climate plan that outlines its mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage, capacity-building, financial support, and technology transfer efforts. These contributions should be upgraded every five years.
  • Long-term temperature goal Keep global temperature increase well below 2°C and pursue 1.5°C limit efforts.
  • Climate finance and burden-sharing The Agreement reaffirms the obligations of developed countries to provide urgent and adequate finance and support for developing countries’ climate efforts, by mobilizing $100 billion dollars per year, with a commitment to increase this goal prior to 2025. 
  • Climate empowerment Countries should promote stakeholder-driven climate action by enhancing climate education, training, public awareness, public participation, and access to information.
  • Review mechanism A global Stocktake to comprehensively assess collective progress toward achieving the purpose of the Agreement will take place in 2023 and five years thereafter.
A young protestor holds a placard while demonstrating at an intersection in Washington, DC on September 23, 2019.; Getty

A young protestor holds a placard while demonstrating at an intersection in Washington, DC on September 23, 2019.;


Restoring U.S. Global Climate Leadership

In order for us to achieve the 1.5°C target emissions, global emissions need to be reduced at an approximate pace of 15% per year starting in 2021 otherwise, we will spend all of our carbon budget sooner rather than later. Current global policies and pledges are not enough to achieve the Paris Agreement, putting us on track to a 3.1°C warmer future. The first U.S. NDC, or U.S. climate plan, is ranked as critically insufficient because it doesn’t address the country’s fair share of emissions and the target is consistent with a warming path greater than 4°C. The success of the Paris Agreement depends on nations pushing each other to set increasingly bold carbon emission targets.

The U.S. was a key player in negotiating and achieving the Paris Agreement together with China. However, China – the main global carbon emitter – has been outpacing the U.S. in climate leadership by positioning itself as a global marketer for clean alternatives and pledging carbon neutrality by 2060. This announcement provided a much-needed momentum and sent a strong signal for international cooperation despite China’s expansion in new coal developments. Moreover, the U.S. environmental policies and rollbacks have put the U.S. much farther from meeting its emission reduction targets. The U.S. needs to rebuild trust within the international community and prove that it can deliver sustainable and bold climate action to be in the climate change leadership role.  

A well-designed, participatory and robustly updated U.S. NDC, that will be delivered by April 22nd, would demonstrate that the U.S. is serious about tackling climate change. This means setting bold 2030 emission-reduction goals and a path to carbon neutrality by 2050, as promised by President Biden. Cities, states, and businesses alone can take us halfway there by potentially reducing 37% of emissions below 2005 by 2030. To embody true climate leadership, the U.S. should also step-up and re-establish financial support pledges that include the Green Climate Fund and other bilateral support mechanisms. It should also reinstate diplomacy that encourages multilateral effort to align development banks’ portfolios, increase overseas finance for clean infrastructure, and leverage relationships to move the international climate agenda forward.

Change leads to a chance, bold climate targets unlock economic benefits and opportunities that can be accrued equitably and offers the U.S. a window to seize upon the next generation of technology while contributing to reducing social inequities. The U.S. still remains an innovation giant and with a whole-government and whole-society approach, it can usher in a new era of U.S. climate leadership and propel global climate action that is attuned with the level of ambition we need. The stakes are high, the Paris Agreement provides a renewed platform for multilateral cooperation with environmental integrity to reach a common goal and it is perhaps our only possible chance to ensure a future in which humanity can thrive.

Isatis M. Cintron-Rodriguez (Ph.D. Candidate) is a Puerto Rican climate researcher awarded the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship to study the impacts of atmospheric pollution in the cryosphere and potential mitigation policies. She works in the intersection between climate civic diplomacy, strategizing and community organizing around climate action and human rights in the Latin America and Caribbean Region (LAC). She is the LAC Regional Coordinator for Citizens Climate Lobby/International (CCI), focused on advancing climate-smart finance, climate empowerment, and public participation both at the national and the UNFCCC level.


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