The State of Paris: How the Climate Agreement is Faring After U.S. Withdrawal

The State of Paris: How the Climate Agreement is Faring After U.S. Withdrawal
Lucas Minich
Vol. 39 Associate Editor

On June 1, 2017, President Trump announced with great fanfare that he would unilaterally, as is arguably his right, withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement.[1] This landmark agreement calls upon its signatory nations to aggressively strive to fight climate change through cooperative efforts. More specifically, it provides a “robust transparency framework,” incentivizes innovation and sharing of effective practices, and implements a work program on a wide slate of issues, all aimed at the ultimate goal of capping global temperature rise this century to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.[2] Any realistic efforts to achieve this lofty goal would inevitably require that greenhouse gas emissions be sharply reduced.[3] This achievement would likely entail the phasing out of extensive coal, oil, and gas usage to meet energy demand, the transforming of food production systems (and perhaps even dietary habits!) to slash methane emissions from cattle, and a serious commitment to reforestation efforts.[4]

When the Agreement attained sufficient ratification among members to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and entered into effect on November 4, 2016, it was generally received in the international community as a necessary and meaningful step in the fight against climate change.[5] The world’s largest emitters stepped up to the plate: the United States agreed to an economy-wide target of reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 26%-28% below 2005 levels by 2025 and China and India made significant pledges as well.[6] This cautious optimism was prematurely shattered when the United States, regarded as the largest global polluter in history and currently behind only China as the second leading emitter of carbon dioxide,[7] notified the UNFCCC of its intention to extract itself from the Agreement. That this is a mistake is undisputed. By rejecting its role in the environmental arena, the United States has damaged the international community’s ability to achieve the scientifically-grounded, universal, and enduring goals necessary for the sustainability of our planet. It is feared that other nations will resent the perceived competitive economic advantage the United States will derive from failing to regulate its industry, causing the Agreement to crumble under the stress placed upon compliance.[8]

Yet there may be reason to remain cautiously optimistic due in part to the provisions of the Agreement itself. Article 28 of the Treaty states that a Party may only withdraw “[a]t any time after three years from the date on which this Agreement has entered into force for a Party” by giving written notice.[9] This means that despite the weightiness with which President Trump announced he would yank the United States out of the Agreement, he cannot actually submit the required notification for withdrawal until November 4, 2019, three years after the Treaty became effective. Assuming the notification for withdrawal is promptly submitted on this date, according to Article 28(2) withdrawal will take effect one year after notification has been received by the UNFCCC.[10]

This is not to say the United States will be obligated to commence efforts to meet the Agreement’s goals for the next three years; the Treaty lacks the necessary enforcement mechanisms to ensure signatories meet their obligations.[11] Indeed, the rollback of environmental regulation in the States has been underway for many months now.[12] What the withdrawal provisions of the Agreement do provide is a four-year window for the United States to potentially change its mind before a true exit is effected, as unlikely as that may seem. There is precedent for Congress precluding a President from performing an executive function with implications that will not be felt until a new administration has the helm,[13] and while the Agreement does not explicitly contemplate readmittance, it seems likely that the United States would be opened back with open arms should it redouble its commitment to the ideals embodied in the Agreement. Fourteen individual states, including New York, California, and Massachusetts, and over 1400 cities (together comprising almost 36% of the American population), have vowed to achieve the espoused environmental goals in their respective territories, helping to combat the damage done at the federal level and potentially easing the United States’ return to the Agreement should it adopt that course.[14]

The United States’ hasty exit, marking an overall failure to make a good faith effort to meet the Agreement’s obligations, has already undermined the treaty to some extent, due to its position as one of the world’s prominent polluters. However, the other Parties to the Agreement have largely recommitted themselves to its goals.[15] The European Union, the remaining G-7 countries, China, and India have all issued statements voicing their support and their actions have largely corroborated this support.[16] Although there remains concern that Paris may yet collapse and that the targets set are both unrealistic and insufficient to prevent the devastating effects of climate change, for now at least, Paris is holding up.


[1] Presidential Remarks Announcing United States Withdrawal From the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Agreement, 2017 Daily Comp. Pres. Docs 373 (June 1, 2016), https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/DCPD-201700373/pdf/DCPD-201700373.pdf.

[2] The Paris Agreement, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, http://unfccc.int/paris_agreement/items/9485.php (last visited Oct. 7, 2017).

[3] 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.

[4] Id.

[5] See, e.g., Fiona Harvey, Paris climate change agreement: the world’s greatest diplomatic success, Guardian (Dec. 14, 2015), https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/13/paris-climate-deal-cop-diplomacy-developing-united-nations; Chris Mooney, Trump Wants to Dump the Paris Climate Deal, But 71 Percent of Americans Support It, Survey Finds, Wash. Post (Nov. 21, 2016), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/11/21/trump-wants-to-dump-the-paris-climate-deal-but-71-percent-of-americans-support-it-survey-finds/?utm_term=.d4203cf9ff89.

[6] Press Release, White House, Office of the Press Sec’y, Fact Sheet: U.S. Reports its 2025 Emissions Target to the UNFCCC (Mar. 31, 2015), https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/03/31/fact-sheet-us-reports-its-2025-emissions-target-unfccc.

[7] Justin Gillis & Nadja Popovich, The U.S. Is the Biggest Carbon Polluter in History. It Just Walked Away From the Paris Climate Deal, N.Y. Times (June 1, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/01/climate/us-biggest-carbon-polluter-in-history-will-it-walk-away-from-the-paris-climate-deal.html.

[8] E.g., Robinson Meyer, The Problem With Abandoning the Paris Agreement, The Atlantic (Nov. 18, 2016), https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/11/the-problem-with-abandoning-the-paris-agreement/508085/.

[9] The Paris Agreement, supra note 2 (emphasis added).

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] See Nadja Popovich & Tatiana Schlossberg, 23 Environmental Rules Rolled Back in Trump’s First 100 Days, N.Y. Times (May 2, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/05/02/climate/environmental-rules-reversed-trump-100-days.html.

[13] See, e.g., Jess Bravin, Merrick Garland’s nomination to Supreme Court expires without a Senate hearing, MarketWatch (Jan. 3, 2017), http://www.marketwatch.com/story/merrick-garlands-nomination-to-supreme-court-expires-without-a-senate-hearing-2017-01-03.

[14] See Hiroko Tabuchi & Henry Fountain, Bucking Trump, These Cities, States and Companies Commit to Paris Accord, N.Y. Times (June 1, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/01/climate/american-cities-climate-standards.html.

[15] Somini Sengupta et al., As Trump Exits Paris Agreement, Other Nations Are Defiant, N.Y. Times (June 1, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/01/world/europe/climate-paris-agreement-trump-china.html.

[16] Id.

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