The Paris Agreement: Industrialized Powers’ Responsibility to Island Nations

The Paris Agreement: Industrialized Powers’ Responsibility to Island Nations
Hyun Lee
Vol. 39 Associate Editor

A few months after U.S. President Donald Trump announced the United States’ future withdrawal from the Paris Agreement,[1] small Pacific island nations called for the implementation of the Paris Agreement in the United Nations General Assembly that took place on September 23, 2017.[2]

The Paris Agreement, which entered into force on November 4, 2016, was ratified to globally address various threats posed by climate change by 1) “keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels,” 2) pursuing “efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius,” and 3) helping various countries better adapt to and combat effects of climate change.[3] Efficiently combating threats and effects of climate change requires constant development of technology, provision of adequate financial flows, and all Parties’ continuous efforts to address climate change by “report[ing] regularly on their emissions and on their implementation efforts.”[4] Industrialized nations’ cooperation is tremendously important, considering that industrialized nations tend to be the biggest polluters[5] with greater wealth compared to small island nations that have emitted “less than 1 percent of human-produced greenhouse gases.”[6] Yet small island nations are most threatened by climate change—many are extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise caused by climate change as they are “only a few meters above present sea level,” but they lack financial resources and socioeconomic infrastructures to combat climate change.[7] Furthermore, a threat of losing these island nations to sea-level rise also poses grave challenges to the ecosystems since “30% of known threatened plant species are endemic to such islands, and 23% of birth species found on these islands are threatened”[8] as well.

It is true that private U.S. companies may enact their own green policies to protect the environment even after the United States withdraws from the Paris Agreement, and the U.S.’ current policies are “expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to about 16% below 2005 levels by 2020.”[9] However, the Parties’ efforts to fight climate change have been far from being successful as the current pledges would result in the global temperature rising “3 degrees Celsius or more above preindustrial levels.”[10] Furthermore, considering that the U.S. is responsible for approximately “15% of global emissions of carbon” and has been a major “source of finance and technology for developing countries” to combat climate change, the U.S.’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement will likely make “other international negotiations” and “implementation of the agreement” more difficult by creating a “geopolitical space in climate leadership.”[11]

During the United Nations General Assembly session on September 23, 2017, the Pacific island nations also implored the leaders of developed nations to “support the Green Climate Fund which aims to finance ‘green’ investments in developing countries.”[12] However, the U.S. will also stop making contributions to the Green Climate Fund as it withdraws from the Paris Agreement.[13] The Green Climate Fund is a global fund founded by the United Nations to help “developing countries limit or reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and adapt to climate change.”[14] Although various sources have made contributions to the fund, the fund is largely supported by developed countries.[15] The United States has pledged to contribute $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund[16] to help underdeveloped countries adopt clean energy and address climate change’s various effects such as “droughts, sea-level rise, and other global warming calamities,” and the Obama administration contributed $1 billion.[17] Since the fund played a critical role as a financial mechanism in supporting the Paris Agreement’s “goal of keeping climate change well below 2 degrees Celsius,”[18] the U.S.’ withdrawal from both the Paris Agreement and the Green Climate Fund may have negative consequences for global efforts to combat climate change. For instance, other industrialized Parties may be less inclined to “take on these extra costs” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions whereas relatively underdeveloped Parties may be less incentivized to combat climate change.[19] In this regard, the U.S.’ withdrawal from the Agreement may also have negative consequences for the global economy. If the world fails to combat and mitigate effects of climate change, it is estimated that the U.S. GDP “between 2016 and 2099 would be 36% lower” and the “average global incomes” would decrease by about 23% by 2100.[20]

Another serious consequence of climate change is displacement of population due to saltwater intrusion,[21] “droughts, sea-level rise[,] or floods”.[22] The affected nations’ unstable economies and social infrastructures call for “a structured migration program” that allows displaced refugees to migrate “economically and environmentally” while preventing diasporas from occurring.[23] The Pacific island nations have called for “a “more sensible and human” approach” that asks developed countries to embrace such refugees and migrants.[24] The importance of implementing the Paris Agreement to combat climate change globally is further demonstrated by the fact that the Paris Agreement increases “the likelihood of Pacific Islands being able to access resources” and tries to resolve displacement issues by requesting “the Executive Committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss And Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts to establish a task force to develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.”[25]

Although certain nations such as Pacific islands that are barely above the current sea-level might be more visibly affected by climate change and its adverse effects at the moment, climate change ultimately affects the entire world’s ecosystems, economy, and population. Global efforts to combat climate change and address its adverse effects are crucial. Without the full cooperation of industrialized, developed nations that are primarily responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, the Paris Agreement and the Green Climate Fund will inevitably fail to live up to their vows.


[1] Valerie Volcovici, U.S. submits formal notice of withdrawal from Paris climate pact, Reuters (Aug. 4, 2017, 5:25 PM), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-un-climate-usa-paris/u-s-submits-formal-notice-of-withdrawal-from-paris-climate-pact-idUSKBN1AK2FM.

[2] Small island nations in Pacific urge global action to fight climate change, United Nations News Ctr. (Sept. 23, 2017), http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=57711.

[3] The Paris Agreement, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, http://unfccc.int/paris_agreement/items/9485.php (last visited Oct. 8, 2017).

[4] The Paris Agreement, supra note 3.

[5] Gero Rueter, Paris Agreement: Savior for the world’s climate?, Deutsche Welle (Nov. 4, 2016), http://www.dw.com/en/paris-agreement-savior-for-the-worlds-climate/a-36268444.

[6] K. Lee Lerner, Climate change impacts in small island nations, in Gale Encyclopedia of Science (Lerner K. Lee et al. eds., 5th ed. 2014), http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/HIDMZN944106175/SCIC?u=albertak12&xid=f887106f.

[7] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability vii, 935-36 (James J. McCarthy et al. eds., 2001), https://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/tar/wg2/index.php?idp=671.

[8] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, supra note 8.

[9] Antonio Graceffo, The Impact of the US Withdrawing from the Paris Accords, Foreign Pol’y J. (July 13, 2017), https://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2017/07/13/the-impact-of-the-us-withdrawing-from-the-paris-accords/.

[10] Brad Plumer, What to Expect as U.S. Leaves Paris Climate Accord, N.Y. Times (June 1, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/01/climate/us-paris-accord-what-happens-next.html.

[11] William A. Galston et al., Trump’s Paris Agreement withdrawal: What it means and what comes next, Brookings Institution (June 1, 2017), https://www.brookings.edu/blog/planetpolicy/2017/06/01/trumps-paris-agreement-withdrawal-what-it-means-and-what-comes-next/.

[12] Small island nations in Pacific urge global actions to fight climate change, supra note 2.

[13] Nadja Popovich & Henry Fountain, What Is the Green Climate Fund and How Much Does the U.S. Actually Pay?, N.Y. Times (June 2, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/02/climate/trump-paris-green-climate-fund.html.

[14] About The Fund, Green Climate Fund, http://www.greenclimate.fund/who-we-are/about-the-fund (last visited Oct. 8, 2017).

[15] Nurith Aizenman, A Little-Known Climate Fund Is Suddenly In The Spotlight, NPR (June 9, 2017, 9:10 AM), http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2017/06/09/532106567/a-little-known-climate-fund-is-suddenly-in-the-spotlight.

[16] Popovich & Fountain, supra note 13.

[17] Plumer, supra note 10.

[18] About The Fund, supra note 14.

[19] Plumer, supra note 10.

[20] Bob Bryan, Trump’s pulling the US out of the Paris climate agreement could be disastrous for the economy, Bus. Insider (June 1, 2017, 5:04 PM), http://www.businessinsider.com/trump-leaving-paris-climate-agreement-effect-on-us-global-economy-2017-6.

[21] On the frontlines of climate change: Migration in the Pacific Islands, United Nations U. (Dec. 2, 2015), https://ehs.unu.edu/media/press-releases/on-the-frontlines-of-climate-change-migration-in-the-pacific-islands-2.html#info.

[22] On the frontlines of climate change, supra note 21.

[23] Ben Doherty & Eleanor Ainge Roy, World Bank: let climate-threatened Pacific islanders migrate to Australia or NZ, Guardian (May 2, 2017, 00:04 AM), https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/may/08/australia-and-nz-should-allow-open-migration-for-pacific-islanders-threatened-by-climate-says-report.

[24] Small island nations in Pacific urge global action to fight climate change, supra note 2.

[25] Pacific Islanders Faced with Climate-Induced Migration, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Feb. 9, 2017), http://newsroom.unfccc.int/cop-23-bonn/pacific-islanders-faced-with-migration-can-benefit-from-paris-agreement/.

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