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The Paris Agreement on climate is celebrating its fifth birthday—what happens next?

By
Oxfam Climate Protest
Oxfam staff join rallies in support of climate action. Alyssa Grinberg/ Oxfam 2020

Happy fifth birthday to the Paris Agreement on climate change! We're thrilled that the US will be rejoining the agreement, but what comes next? Here's what you need to know.

On December 12, world leaders and climate justice advocates will celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement, the landmark 2015 pact that committed the world to action on climate change. It’s been an uneven five years for the agreement, in no small part because the Trump administration withdrew the US from the pact—a decision which formally took effect the day after the 2020 election. President-elect Biden has pledged to re-enter the agreement on his first day in office, and that’s when the real work will begin.

Rejoining the agreement is only the first step—the world is depending on the US to do its fair share to tackle climate change. The US presence back in the agreement will only matter if we’re actually working to address climate change here at home and enable poorer countries to do the same for themselves overseas. That means reducing our emissions and helping poor countries adapt to their new climate realities. For Oxfam, the Paris Agreement is a way to both help promote climate justice and meet our climate goals.

We asked Jesse Young, Oxfam’s policy lead on climate, to answer three big questions about climate action and the Paris Agreement:

Q. After the US rejoins the Paris Agreement, what’s our next step?

The Paris Agreement is premised on the idea that wealthier countries can support more vulnerable countries in building low-carbon economies and grappling with climate impacts—by providing “climate finance” in the form of grants and other tools. This kind of cooperation and assistance between high-income and low-income countries is one of the main reasons Oxfam supported the agreement in the first place. But, as Oxfam has shown, not nearly enough climate finance is being dedicated to helping those in greatest need adapt to the effects of climate change.

That’s why the US needs to “show up” on climate finance and demonstrate its commitment to the Paris Agreement by:

  1. Doubling its commitment to the Green Climate Fund, which helps poor countries fight climate change;
  2. Making substantial new financial pledges to other international funds that help poor communities increase their resilience and adaptation to climate change impacts;
  3. Expanding funding of bilateral (country-to-country) US climate investments;
  4. Phasing out US international development spending on fossil fuels (when we finance things like power plants in other countries).

Q. When the US announces its new climate goals, what will Oxfam be looking for?

Under the Paris Agreement, every country is individually responsible for crafting a national climate strategy that lays out a plan to reduce emissions and deal with climate impacts.

President Trump voided the US climate plan when he pulled out of the agreement, meaning that President-elect Biden also needs to set a new target after the US rejoins in January.

The US will announce that new target at some point in 2021. Oxfam believes it should focus on:

  1. Protecting vulnerable US communities on the front lines of climate change;
  2. Fairly and justly transitioning away from our reliance on fossil fuels;
  3. Ensuring that climate solutions are affordable and achievable for poorer Americans.

A credible US target also needs to lay out our plans for adaptation and resilience—especially in places like Puerto Rico where Oxfam’s work has highlighted profound climate vulnerabilities.

Q. How can the US under President-elect Biden ensure no one is left behind in the climate fight?

President-elect Biden has pledged to convene world leaders for a summit and focus on ramping up climate action—which is vitally important. But it’s not enough to lead the climate conversation if we don’t also include the voices of those most impacted by climate change. The discussion around climate action needs to be premised on an acknowledgment that richer countries have the greatest responsibility to meet this challenge. We need to push our partners and allies to increase their climate commitments and spend more to enable the transition to low-carbon economies—especially wealthier countries that have already pledged funding to help do just that.

This also means centering the voices of historically-marginalized minorities and those in the global south in these discussions. The shape and content of climate action should not be dictated solely by wealthy countries. Those most impacted by the devastating effects of climate change should be meaningfully involved in creating these solutions.

That means that the US doesn’t just need to provide funding and diplomatic support, but also needs to listen to and empower communities in the global south—so that our solutions are not “top-down.” We also need to “walk the walk” here in rich nations like the US by ending state support for fossil fuels. For example, building a new coal plant today—one that will quickly become too dirty and expensive to burn in the coming years—is a bad investment.

Addressing the needs of the vulnerable should be at the heart of the Biden administration’s climate agenda on the world stage. More effective spending overseas, a renewed focus on adaptation and equity, and stronger US climate action can all help meet that challenge and address those needs. If we simply rely on reducing carbon emissions and leave our societies as deeply unequal as they are now, we won’t solve the problem. Urgency is key—the climate emergency is already here.

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