On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed—as he campaigned on saying he’d do—an executive order committing the United States to rejoining the Paris Agreement, the climate treaty adopted by 196 countries in 2015 to keep average global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. Donald Trump had pulled the U.S. out of the agreement in 2017, angering allies as the world. Yet meanwhile few other countries—and none of the worst polluters—are meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. Global emissions have continued to rise, even during the pandemic, and many countries are still building new coal-fired power plants. After all, the goals in the Paris Agreement are voluntary, with each country proposing its own emissions targets. So does it even matter that the United States is rejoining?

According to John Furlow, who was part of the U.S. State Department team that negotiated the Paris Agreement in 2015, and who’s worked on adaptation to climate change at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Columbia University, we already have technologies and institutions that are effective at cutting emissions and removing carbon from the atmosphere. And rejoining the Paris Agreement will enable the U.S. to participate in international markets that trade carbon-emissions permits, which will be at the top of the agenda at this year’s treaty negotiations—and which could help further reduce emissions significantly.

Michael Bluhm: During the presidential campaign, Joe Biden promised that the United States would rejoin the Paris Agreement, if he were elected. One of the first things that he did when he took office was to move to rejoin the agreement. What is the significance of this?

John Furlow: It’s significant on a couple of levels. First of all, I think it’s important for the United States to play a leadership role in these big international agreements.

We should be a part of it—the world looks to the United States for leadership. A lot of good ideas come out of the U.S., and the direction that the implementation of the Paris Agreement takes will influence how the world’s economy works. As the biggest player in the world’s economy, we should be a part of it.

Given the level of interest in the United States, we should be at the table shaping it, making it work for us, and making it work for people who are afraid it’s going to hurt their economic prospects—but also, very importantly, making it work for people who live in coastal areas and people who saw their land burn up over the last few summers in California.

[The Accord] is designed to make life better on Earth for everyone. It’s been characterized as this thing that’s going to destroy everybody’s livelihood, but that’s ridiculous. It was also designed in ways to address a lot of the criticisms of the Kyoto Protocol and previous efforts.

It’s voluntary. It relies on transparency and a sense of competition, so that the idea is that each country will commit to a level of emissions reductions and then feel challenged by their neighbors or their competitors—and that competition and market forces and innovation will drive emissions down more rapidly than regulation. It is not a hard regulation.

Bluhm: What does rejoining the Paris Agreement mean for U.S. businesses, states, or people in general?

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Furlow: The way Paris works is, each country makes a commitment to reduce emissions by a certain amount. Then each country then goes about putting together a plan, and they can devise that plan however they want.

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