U.S. set to officially exit the Paris climate deal

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It will be bittersweet or the ultimate victory lap.

Finally, 1,253 days after U.S. President Donald Trump announced plans to leave the Paris climate deal, he will by Wednesday take his country out of the global agreement.

What does that mean?

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The absence of the second biggest polluter on earth and the largest economy from climate geopolitics. That’s bad for progress on cutting emissions, both in the U.S. and overseas.

It gives cover to big fossil fuel producers, such as Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Australia, to do nothing. It gives others, such as India, a reason not to do more. It will throw pressure onto Europe to shoulder diplomatic leadership.

The 2015 pact between 197 countries committed to a goal to halt warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, and strive to hold it at 1.5 degrees, by garnering increasingly ambitious voluntary commitments from governments.

The U.S. State Department will no longer be an active member at U.N. climate meetings on the Paris deal. But it will remain an observer, allowed to sit in, and a member of the U.N. Framework Climate Convention (of which the Paris deal is just a part). No one really knows how this will work.

Is the timing coincidental?

Yes, totally.

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Trump declared his intention to withdraw from the deal on July 1, 2017, but nothing actually happened. Under the rules of the Paris deal, any country wanting to withdraw had to wait three years from November 4, 2016 — the date the deal became international law.

The U.S. duly filed its divorce papers on November 4 last year. That means the one-year cooling-off period expires at midnight Eastern time on Tuesday: the same moment Americans and the world will be watching the new chapter of history unfold.

What would it take to go back in?

Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden has vowed to reenter the deal on his first day in office. He could do that through a brief executive order accepting the accord on behalf of the U.S. — just as Barack Obama did in 2016.

But a signature alone might not cut it. The U.S. would also need to submit a formal plan for cutting emissions, known as a nationally determined contribution or NDC. The rules aren’t clear about whether this is a prerequisite for joining or would have to follow shortly afterward.

Biden would have the Obama Administration’s NDC, which aimed to cut 26-28 percent of emissions between 2005 and 2025, sitting on the shelf. But he wants to raise the ambition of that pledge, along with much of the rest of the world, ahead of the COP26 U.N. talks in November 2021.

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To do that, the administration would need a plan and policies — and, to implement it, the support of the U.S. Congress.

Is it really that easy?

There is the question of money. The U.S. committed $3 billion to the U.N. Green Climate Fund, which helps poorer countries cope with climate change and move to clean energy. Obama paid $1 billion of that amount.

Biden has said he will “recommit” to the fund, which implies back-paying the U.S. debt. But that commitment is several years old and the hosts of COP26 — the U.K. government — are calling for rich countries to double their previous climate finance commitments.

Meanwhile, the world is moving on. China’s President Xi Jinping last month declared his country would set a goal for net-zero emissions by 2060 — an announcement seen as an attempt to place Trump and the U.S. on the wrong side of a wave of political and economic momentum. Japan and South Korea followed with 2050 goals, and the EU looks set to dramatically increase its 2030 target next month.

There is also a question of trust. The U.S. has walked away from two climate deals it helped broker — Paris and the Kyoto Protocol. The world will take them back, but things won’t be the same.

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