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Shada El-Sharif, MC-MPA Candidate 2021, Mason & ELI Fellow

April 20, 2021

America’s rejoining of the Paris Agreement is good news for global climate action

Three swift steps will enable the US to assert its leadership at home and abroad

By Shada El-Sharif

President Joe Biden delivered on his campaign promise of re-entering America into the Paris Agreement: “The first order I am signing is tackling the climate crisis at home and abroad”. The strategic appointment of a seasoned diplomat like John Kerry as his Climate Envoy was seen as a “powerful signal” of the US’ intention to re-engage actively on the international climate scene. Some modest gains have been made in that arena including the recent, cautious commitment with China to ‘cooperate’ on climate.

As the second highest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter globally, and a world leader in technology, the climate policies and projects implemented in the US in the short- and medium-term will have ripple effects beyond its shores. The world, and indeed the planet, urgently needs the US to lead in three ways: ambitious and credible climate pledges, successful green job programs, and allocation of finance for climate-responsive projects. There is a clear opportunity to steer economic recovery to lock-in a low carbon future, while building resilience in the US and beyond.

The first and much-anticipated climate policy is the US plan for climate action by 2030 (also known as the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) in climate-speak). John Kerry has called on countries to raise their ambitions through updated NDCs, but the world will expect the US to lead by example. Current global commitments continue to fall short of the Paris Agreement target of ‘well below 1.5oC’ rise, with catastrophic impacts already unfolding as the world veers towards a 3oC rise this century.

A report by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) proposes the US adopt a 50% emissions reduction target by 2030, with credible pathways to reach it. The world will be watching the US at two critical moments this year: the upcoming Leaders Summit on Climate on Earth Day this week, and the Conference of Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November. Both present opportunities for the US  to announce concrete actions and issue science-backed NDCs to achieve President Biden’s promise of net-zero carbon by 2050.

Jobs will be the second strategic driver for climate action, in the US and abroad. Since the NDCs depend on national buy-in, it is unsurprising that President Biden has framed the rejoining of the Paris Agreement as being all about “good paying jobs.” If this ’green job’ transition succeeds in the US, it will pave the way for countries grappling with their own economic recovery response and heeding the  UN’s call to ‘Build Back Better’. The US would finally be joining the ranks of first movers-like the EU with their European Green Deal and green stimulus approach, demonstrating that green jobs, technology, climate action, and economic recovery are not mutually exclusive.

Third, grand plans will need to be backed up by solid financial allocations. Global leaders continue to fall short of their commitment to provide $100 bn annually for international climate finance. The US has yet to deliver its $2bn committed to the UN’s Green Climate Fund (GCF). These funds are needed to provide urgent support to vulnerable countries through adaptation projects, as well as support developing nations with their low carbon transitions. Similarly, the $2 trillion infrastructure plan recently announced by the Biden Administration also seeks to address climate resilience and carbon reduction in the US.

In John Kerry’s words, COP26 is “the last best chance” to avert serious environmental consequences for our world. Today, the stars are aligned for the US to emerge as a climate leader, for the sake of its own citizens, and the world population at large. But there is much to do before November.


Shada El-Sharif is a MC-MPA candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School, and a member of the Climate, Energy and Environment Professional Interest Council (CEE-PIC). She is an advisor on Climate Change & Sustainability for governments and international organizations in Jordan and the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region.

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