As the U.S. awaits the results of the presidential election on Wednesday, one milestone passed in the midst of the vote-count chaos: The country is officially out of the Paris Agreement.
The country has exited one full year after President Trump gave official notice that the world’s second largest emitter would pull out of the broadest multinational agreement ever created to address the capping of emissions and thus mitigate the ravages of climate change.
But the future of that retreat is anything but certain. On the one side is a President who has rolled back environmental regulations domestically and championed the coal industry. On the other, you find a candidate in Joe Biden who has said he would recommit the country to the international accord as soon as possible.
There’s another big if hanging over the future of the deal. Biden’s larger green agenda rests on Democratic control of the Senate. Without that, he may find himself with little room to maneuver, requiring him to rely on an executive order to readmit the U.S. after taking office—the same approach Obama took to get the U.S. into the agreement in the first place.
The Paris Agreement, which was signed in 2015, and has been ratified by 189 countries, commits governments to collectively do everything in their power to keep global temperature rise “well below” two degrees Celsius to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The accord doesn’t dictate how or when countries must cut their carbon footprint, but requires them to be transparent about their emissions.
Those questions haven’t stopped companies from stepping forward to do their part. Since the ink on the deal dried, the corporate world has stepped up to pledge a commitment to going net zero by 2050. This mainly requires companies to cut emissions from operations, and then offset the rest—either through regeneration of nature or other tactics, including carbon capture and storage.
To be sure, any climate commitment from Washington, or lack thereof, is significant. The U.S. is the source of roughly 15% of the world’s CO2 emissions, only second to China—which, earlier this autumn, committed to net-zero emissions by 2060. It is also both a huge consumer and producer of fossil fuels. By 2019, the shale boom had made the U.S. not just the world’s top consumer of oil, but the world’s largest producer, as well.
But Wednesday’s official removal is largely symbolic. The U.S.’s retreat from the accord has now been known since Trump first stepped into the Oval Office. But in state capitals, there’s a significant green movement under way. State and local governments have decided, in many cases, not to wait for direction from Washington, instead committing to targets that far outstrip federal requirements.
One such example is through organizations like the U.S. Climate Alliance, which claims to represent 55% of the U.S. population through a coalition of governors in states including California, New York, and Washington. Their goal is an ambitious one: “to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025.”
Meanwhile, Fortune 500 companies from Facebook to Ford to General Mills have also committed to the net-zero target. Internationally, that includes some of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, including BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and Equinor, which have all pledged to reach net zero in a commitment that will by necessity fundamentally reshape their businesses.
Despite concerns that the global pandemic might erase momentum behind climate targets, the UN says the governments and companies committing to a net-zero target in 2020 have roughly doubled in less than a year.