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The following op-ed originally appeared on The Hill on January 22, 2021. 

Among President Joe Biden’s day one actions was to re-join the Paris Agreement. But the new administration needs to be clear-eyed about the U.S. government’s damaged international standing after the Trump years. 

Simply picking up where the Obama administration left off won’t be enough. Instead, as the Biden administration recommits to the Paris deal, he should do so with humility and determination, prepared to take bold and concrete steps to repair U.S. integrity on the international stage. 

The U.S. has too often played a strong-arm role in United Nations climate negotiations and then failed to follow through on commitments. At the 1997 negotiations in Kyoto, Vice President Al Gore said the U.S. would not ratify a deal unless countries accepted a mechanism for trading greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) credits as one way that industrialized countries could reach their climate goals. The carbon market mechanism was duly incorporated into the Kyoto Protocol, but the U.S. never ratified the deal. 

In Copenhagen in 2009, countries agreed to a proposal by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to supply $100 billion annually in public and private climate related finance to poor countries by 2020. A U.N. independent expert report published last month concluded that the countries have not come close to reaching the commitment. Backtracking by the U.S. is part of the reason, including now-former President Trump’s decision to renege on $2 billion promised to the Green Climate Fund (designed to aid developing countries).  

In 2015 at the Paris negotiations, President Obama helped design a deal grounded in national-level voluntary commitments to succeed. Shortly thereafter, the Obama administration brought a successful trade challenge of India’s solar program, designed to reach its Paris commitments, and included special corporate rights for polluters in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. In 2017, Trump announced the U.S. would leave the Paris climate accords and no longer abide by U.S. emission reduction commitments.

Since Kyoto, the U.S. has worked closely with the financial sector and global companies to advocate for a global carbon market at U.N. climate talks, despite the mechanism’s long history of fraud, money laundering and emissions reduction failure. The inclusion of land-based offset financial products threatens to further delay direct investment in emissions reduction technology and practices. U.N. climate negotiators continue to discuss rules for a global carbon market to integrate with national-level commitments. Tired of waiting for governments, the financial industry will announce its own rules for voluntary carbon markets at the end of January. 

Instead of pushing complicated, unworkable carbon markets on the world, the U.S. should re-enter the Paris deal with a clear focus on reducing its own emissions and accounting for its historic contributions to the climate crisis. The Climate Equity Reference Project’s methodology calculates each country’s fair share contribution to the climate crisis, including emissions driven offshore. The U.S. Climate Action Network (CAN) applied the project’s methodology to the U.S., concluding that the U.S. should commit to a 195 percent reduction in 2005 emissions levels by 2030. 

With the Biden administration having re-joined the Paris Agreement, the U.S must take three steps to begin to restore its credibility.

One, fulfill and indeed increase U.S. climate-related aid commitments, including to the Green Climate Fund (GCF). The Biden administration should announce new financial contributions and commitments to the GCF and its adaptation fund.

Two, strengthen the U.S. climate commitment. While a pandemic-induced reduction in 2020 emissions has put the U.S. within shouting distance of its original Paris commitment, emissions are expected to rise again as the economy recovers. In 2020, many countries ratcheted up their climate commitments under Paris. The U.S. needs to catch up. The Biden administration should announce a substantial 2030 commitment for U.S. emission reductions, informed by U.S. CAN’s fair share analysis. 

Three, reaffirm the U.S. commitment to human rights and food security. As countries ratchet up their climate commitments, they must not sacrifice internationally-recognized human rights. Carbon market offset projects have forcibly removed people from their land in the global South. The U.S. should uphold its international human rights obligations, as well as its commitment to an integrated and systems-based approach to the economic and ecological challenges facing the world, as set out in the U.N. 2030 Agenda of Sustainable Development Goals

Recommitting to the Paris Agreement is an opportunity to reboot U.S. engagement with the world. The Biden administration must learn from others, such as the European Union, who are already leading on climate action and demonstrate leadership with concrete action to reduce the U.S.’s own emissions, while contributing to the finance the global South needs to respond to the climate crisis. Biden’s day one return to Paris cannot come soon enough for the preservation of the planet and positive U.S. engagement with the world.

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