The US aims to reclaim lost ground. Climate tsar John Kerry said a wholesale transformation of the global economy was required to meet net zero emission targets © Reuters

The day after US president Joe Biden’s move to rejoin the international climate agreement, his climate tsar John Kerry issued a forceful call to global action and declared that “failure is simply not an option”.

In his first address as presidential climate envoy, Mr Kerry stressed the need to accelerate the pace of global decarbonisation and said the US would “move forward with a combination of humility and ambition”. 

“Reaching net zero global carbon emissions as early as 2050 will take a wholesale transformation of the global economy,” he said.

In one of his first acts as president, Mr Biden wrote to the UN to formally begin the process of rejoining the 2016 Paris Agreement — a move which would take effect after 30 days. Signatories pledged to keep global warming below 2C compared with pre industrial levels, with an ambition of limiting this rise to 1.5C. Presently, that level stands at about 1.2C.

Mr Kerry said on Thursday that the new administration acknowledged, “with pain and some embarrassment”, the damage caused by Donald Trump’s “reckless” decision to pull out of the Paris accord. But a green transition would create “millions of jobs”, he said, and the world was facing “an unprecedented wealth creation opportunity”.

Rejoining Paris was one of Mr Biden’s key climate campaign pledges, alongside promises to achieve net zero emissions “no later than” 2050 and to decarbonise US power generation by 2035.

But the move is just the start of a long journey to reform the US’s climate policies, experts said.

“It’s going to take the entire government, working with the private sector and the non governmental sector, to attack this problem,” said John Podesta, a former chief of staff in the Clinton administration and adviser to former president Barack Obama.

What does rejoining Paris mean

To rejoin the Paris accord the US must submit a plan to reduce emissions, known as a nationally determined contribution (NDC), with a 2030 goal © YOAN VALAT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The US must submit a plan to reduce emissions, known as a nationally determined contribution (NDC), with a 2030 goal. But when that plan might be finalised and what it might say is not yet determined. 

“The easy part is rejoining Paris,” said Alden Meyer, a senior associate with think-tank E3G. The next step is “putting forward an ambitious NDC for 2030, which has some reality to it for domestic action”.

Ahead of the UN climate summit in Glasgow in November, known as COP26, all the Paris signatories must submit revised and newly ambitious climate plans.

For the US, that means going beyond its initial aim, when it first joined the Paris accord, of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 28 per cent by 2025 compared with 2005 levels.

What happened to the 2016 agreement the US signed

Ahead of the UN climate summit in Glasgow in November, all the Paris signatories of COP21 must submit revised and newly ambitious climate plans © ETIENNE LAURENT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Since Mr Trump did not ask for the initial pledge by the US to be removed from the UN registry when he withdrew, that plan is still there, the organisation says.

The 2016 US pledge would likely act “as a place holder” until a new plan could be drawn up, said David Levai, a former Paris accord negotiator and researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations.

That process could take several months, since it would require extensive consultation right across the economy, such as labour unions, business groups and local government, he said. The challenge would be outlining a plan that was both sufficiently ambitious and equally credible, he added.

While the COP meeting in November is a hard deadline, experts said the administration would want to publish its targets and road map for achieving them several months before then.

“I don’t think they want to wait too long,” said Kelly Sims Gallagher, professor of energy and environmental policy at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, as US representatives would want to take a leadership role in encouraging other countries to “enhance their own targets”.

US changes: rollbacks, Keystone scrapped, clean energy, and more

The dome of the US Capitol is seen behind the smokestacks of the Capitol Power Plant, the only coal-burning power plant in Washington, DC © JIM LO SCALZO/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Enforcing stricter domestic legislation and reversing Trump-era rollbacks, will be key if the US is to outline a credible climate target, experts say.

Mr Biden set the ball rolling on Wednesday by scrapping the permit given to the Keystone XL oil pipeline connecting the US with Canada.

He also issued a wide ranging executive order that directed government agencies to “immediately review and take appropriate action” to address Trump-era regulations and executive orders “that were harmful to public health, damaging to the environment, unsupported by the best available science, or otherwise not in the national interest”.

Researchers at Berkeley Law have identified nearly 200 Trump-era environmental rollbacks that could be undone, such as the weakening of vehicle fuel emissions standards.

The Biden administration “is very likely to undertake the vast majority of these actions,” though it would be a lengthy process, said Ted Lamm, a policy analyst at the Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment at Berkeley Law. The administration is “unfortunately in the position of having to undo a lot of things before [it can] make progress,” he added.

US infrastructure spending

One area for consensus could be spending on sustainable infrastructure and clean energy projects, which Mr Biden has indicated will be priorities. On Thursday, Mr Kerry called for an increase in private investment in clean energy and said the business community’s role in helping solve the crisis “cannot be overstated”.

Analysts say there is pent-up demand for infrastructure projects and they are likely to draw bipartisan support.

Mr Podesta said some Republicans had “embraced the idea that particularly renewable and clean energy is an important investment in their own economy. There is an opportunity I think to find common ground.” 

What it means on the international stage

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during the UN Climate Action Summit in 2019 © AFP/Getty Images

After four years of climate inaction the US has much to catch up on.

The US must get its domestic climate policies in order before casting its ambitions abroad, said Tuft’s Ms Sims Gallagher. This would require “a very strong dose of humility.”

“We’re not coming to foreign policy from a position of strength,” she noted.

There has been a shift in the geopolitics around climate change since 2016, with China in particular taking a more prominent role following its 2020 pledge to be carbon neutral by 2060. US-China relations soured during the Trump presidency, and Mr Biden promised to be tough on China throughout his campaign.

Jennifer Austin, the COP26 champions strategy director, said climate negotiations could be “one of the pillars of re-establishing a better relationship” between the US and China.

Climate Capital

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*This article has been amended since original publication to reflect that the Paris accord was signed in 2016.

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