Biden Returns the US to the Paris Climate Accord. Will It Matter?



With the stroke of a pen from his new desk in the Oval Office, President Joe Biden pulled the US back into the Paris climate accord on Wednesday, an international agreement that experts say is vital to getting the world’s nations to slow the emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases. The executive order— the third of 17 executive orders or actions issued on his first day in office—means that US officials now will begin calculating a new target for the nation’s overall carbon emissions by the year 2030.

That target, in turn, will require federal, state, and corporate decisionmakers to set new standards for factories, cars, and power plants to use cleaner energy to meet that goal—while likely offering both incentives and penalties to reduce overall energy use by all US residents.

If that wasn’t enough climate action, Biden also signed an order canceling the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, which would have brought crude oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, an amount of petroleum whose production, refining, and burning would create the equivalent of the carbon dioxide emissions from 35.5 million cars per year. Another executive order signed Wednesday directs federal agencies to block former president Donald Trump’s previous weakening of federal rules that limited the release of emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from oil and gas drilling operations, to revise vehicle fuel economy and emissions standards, and to update appliance and building efficiency standards.

Along with his dogs Major and Champ, Biden is bringing with him to the White House a big team of climate change experts, including new senior climate advisers in the Departments of State, Treasury, and Transportation, as well as in the National Security Council and Office of the Vice President. Former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy is being tapped to head a new White House office on climate policy; former secretary of state John Kerry will be Biden’s new international climate envoy; and David Hayes, a former deputy interior secretary, was named Biden’s special assistant on climate policy, The New York Times reported.

Experts say these first-day moves will set the US on a better path to fight climate change at home and abroad. “The Paris announcement is really important because it puts the US back in the global conversation,” says Jake Schmidt, managing director for the international program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It means Biden can also use the influence of the US to drive other countries to act more aggressively on climate change. We’ve been making the case that we need to have a climate-first foreign policy.”

That approach might work in negotiations with countries like Mexico or Brazil, two nations whose current populist leaders have blocked investment in renewable energy (Mexico) and boosted deforestation (Brazil), Schmidt says. If either nation wants to secure trade agreements with the US, Biden might require them to make climate progress in return. Meanwhile, smaller nations are looking to Biden’s election as a return to normalcy and hopefully progress on climate change, especially in countries that are feeling the heat from rising sea levels and increasing tropical storms.

But experts also warn that there are plenty of hurdles ahead. Trump’s four years were marked with disdain for science, the weakening of environmental regulations, and outright denial of the perils of climate change. In fact, one of Trump’s own early executive actions was announcing that the US would withdraw from the Paris agreement, which the US had joined in 2016 under then-president Barack Obama. (The withdrawal process began in 2019 and became official on November 4, 2020—the day after Trump lost his reelection bid.)