The Paris Agreement: A Historic Climate Accord

Signing by John Kerry in United Nations General Assembly Hall for the United States | Courtesy of Wikimedia Common

On June 1, 2017, American President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement.1 The Paris agreement originally came from the negotiations at the COP 21, a climate conference that took place in Paris. It is the fruit of years of laborious negotiations between 200 countries and different entities, aiming at limiting the increase of the average temperature on earth to 2°C. However, Donald Trump, faithful to his campaign promise, decided to quit that fight, making the United States the only country not participating in this effort. The future of the Paris Climate Agreement and its application is uncertain, despite the consternation aroused around the world by Trump’s decision and the multiple positive and voluntary signals of the other participants.2 Will the consequences of the withdrawal of the United States be fatal to the accord? No. It is obvious that the retreat of the US will have an impact on the other countries and on the climate. However, by rejecting the Paris Accord, the American President forces the rest of the world to take a position. Contrary to all expectations, Trump’s decision led to a political mobilization in favor of the fight against climate change.3

Paris Agreement Logo | Courtesy of Wikimedia Common

In 2016, representatives from 195 countries met in Paris for the COP 21. It is called COP for Conference Of Parties and 21 because it is the twenty-first meeting of the countries of the United Nations concerning the climate since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, which was the first major conference about climate change. The goal of all the countries’ negotiators was to find an agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The purpose, decided in 2009 during the COP15 in Copenhagen, is to make sure that global warming does not exceed +2°C by 2100, taking as reference the temperature of the earth during the pre-industrial era.4

Main points of the Agreement | Courtesy of Wikimedia Common

Those negotiations had been difficult: nobody wants to bear the costs required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The countries of the developing South want to pay less—or even not at all—than the countries of the developed North, because they claim to have contributed to global warming less than the North, and are less able to contribute financially because they are less developed. The countries of the North feel that it would be necessary to make payments not according to the historical responsibility of every nation, but according to the emitted pollution. The non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the small countries particularly threatened by climate change want to limit global warming to +1.5°C, while the others prefer the limit of +2°C. Furthermore, certain countries want to obligate other countries to stop using fossil fuels entirely, which is something that many others are opposed to, in particular the oil-producing countries as well as people working in or in association with the coal industry.5

The COP 21 finally ended with the Paris agreement. However, the decision of Barack Obama to sign the document won’t be upheld by the new president, Donald Trump, who decided to remove the United States from the agreement. The withdrawal of the United States could have several consequences. First, it is a major blow hurled at the climatic inheritance of Obama. According to the Rhodium Group, which estimates regularly the greenhouse gas emissions of the United States, the policy of Obama already needed to be improved in order to reach the ambitions fixed by the agreement. The US was going to reduce from 26% to 28% its emissions of greenhouse gas by 2025, according to their emissions in 2005, which was an objective below the Europeans’ goal, but beyond the previous American contributions. The problem is that President Trump will not improve it, but on the contrary, is clearly going to prevent the US from meeting the commitments that it took originally. Since Trump has made every effort to render meaningless the Obama’s Clean Power Plan since January 2017, the chances are high that the 26% to 28% will not be reacedh, especially without the diplomatic pressure that was planned in the Paris Agreement. 

The turn-around in the United States is also going to negatively impact the influence of the US on the topic of climate change generally.6 By withdrawing the agreement of Paris, the United States has rejected the role of leadership that it had chosen to assume with China under Obama’s presidency, as main pollutants, by committing the question. It is possible, for example, that China will take up this position of leadership alone or maybe Europe will step up as well. In any case, this decision isolates the United States on the international scene. However, history has shown that the decision of the US might change again in four years, or more, according to the administration that will succeed Donald Trump at the head of the United States.7 Indeed, the previous climate agreement, called the Kyoto Protocol, presented a similar situation. The Republican-led government had withdrawn the US from the accord contrary to the promises made by the Democrat-led administration. Despite the decision of the US to leave the agreement, and the fight against climate changes, there are many countries that have already announced their firm intention to respect the terms of the accord: China, Germany, and Italy, among others. In the United States also, since the announcement of Donald Trump, numerous cities, and States including New York, California, and Washington, launched the resistance and are planning on respecting the agreement of Paris. 

Does Donald Trump also expose himself to a backfire by leaving the Paris Agreement? At least, he would send the signal that other countries cannot negotiate with the United States under his administration, as they do not know whether the country will keep its word and maintain commitments made in the past. The United States would go out of a treaty that the country ratified only a few months ago and had largely participated in the elaboration. The United States would find itself extremely weakened diplomatically in case of the withdrawal from this agreement. Donald Trump would also be exposed to the risk of marginalizing himself in his own country. This decision is far from being unanimous within his own party. Besides, several American States have shown their desire to pursue their own efforts to fight against global warming.8 

Secretary Kerry at the COP 21 in Paris, France | Courtesy of Environmental Defense Fund

The United States was one of the principal architects of the Paris Agreement. Without its financing, the sustainability of the project is questionable. “Generally, the United States represents between 18% and 20% of the international financing. It is a big loss of income which cannot be replaced as such. Thus,  the members of the accords will have to imagine new financial mechanisms to balance the absence of the US.”9

However, this retreat could also have direct consequences on developing countries, in particular on those that we call “least developed countries.” Many of them indeed had to receive financing from developed countries, which were supposed to receive collectively at least 100 billion dollars a year until 2025.10 Moreover, John Kerry, former Secretary of State, had announced that the US would commit to supporting these countries by sending them $800 million dollars a year to help them adapt to the climate change. According to projections realized by researchers of the organization Climate Interactive, the quantity of greenhouse gas could increase by 3 billion tons of equivalent CO2 per year by 2030, in case of the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris agreement. The country would then be responsible for an increase of 0.3 degrees of the 3 degrees globally,as projected by the scientist,s if nothing is done.

In diplomatic terms, Trump’s policy is a hard blow: the United States is the second biggest polluter; the fact that it will be renouncing the fight against climate change could encourage other countries to do the same. The United States is the second biggest producers of greenhouse gas in the world, behind China. Within the framework of the agreement of Paris, the United States had established the objective to reduce from 28% to 26% of their greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. This voluntary contribution served as the goal sealed by the agreement of Paris: “maintain the increase of the good world average temperature below 2°C. Experts say that, without the United States, we can say goodbye the objective of 2°C.”11 

The problem is that the sum of the possible voluntary contributions of the United States does not assure the realization of this objective. As of today, without the United States, if every country meets its initial commitments, the global temperature will increase by 3°C. To realize the objective set in the Paris Agreement, the United States would have to revise regularly their commitments upwards. Yet, with the exit of the United States, it will be extremely difficult, politically, to demand such commitments. Moreover, it is complicated to ask developing countries—which struggle with their economic situation and already have troubles feeding their own people—to participate in the agreement, especially if the United States, which is considered a rich country, does not respect its promises. Furthermore, it is a huge sacrifice to ask of these countries whose development primarily repose on activity sectors and industries that produce a lot of greenhouse gas.12 However, there are a lot of reasons for being optimistic. Several American states, such as California and New York, indeed announced their intention to pursue their own programs of reduction of their emissions coming from power plants and vehicles, even in case of a federal retreat. Besides, several major powers (along with the European Union, China, and India) also promised that they would continue their efforts, no matter what the decision of the United States will be. In the short term, the withdrawal of the United States from the Climate Agreement could have a positive effect on the other countries.13

There are several possibilities for a country’s withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. The easiest is not to respect the commitments made during the signature of the accord. The national contributions of the United States do not appear in the binding part of the agreement. Thus, no country can drag any particular country that ratified the text to court for failure to respect its commitments. The United States, second bigger world producer of greenhouse gas behind China, promised under Obama to reduce their emissions from 26% to 28% by 2025 with regard to 2005. Donald Trump could choose to revise downwards these objectives, which would be already dramatic for the world climate. Another possibility that President Trump seems to be seriously considering is to simply withdraw the country from the agreement, as Article 28 allows. However, the process will be long: as the text allows the withdrawal of a country after three years from the creation of the agreement. Therefore, the US will have to wait until November 2019 in order to have the legal possibility of expressing its will to get out of the accord. An additional year for an actual retreat will be required as well. Thus, in legal terms, the United States could only get out of the Paris Agreement in November 2020, or at the time of the next presidential election.14

According to the framework of the Paris Agreement, it is impossible to sanction the United States directly for its retreat. Indeed, as American politics has become extremely unstable when it comes to these engagements, the committee had to anticipate it and propose an accord that would be convenient for the American administration. Thus, the agreement stipulates that any country can decide to withdraw itself from it, at any time after three years passes since the ratification of the accord by the nation. However, with the announcement of President Trump, certain countries announced their firm intention not only to stay in the agreement, but also to act against the US. The possibility of imposing a carbon tax on the imports coming from the United States was firmly mentioned by Rodolfo Lacy Tamayo, the secretary of the environmental politics of Mexico, in November 2016.15

On the occasion of the COP 22, which aimed at continuing the work begun in 2015, Tamayo had declared that “a carbon tax against the United States is a possible option.”16 Finally, a fault in the agreement allows for avoiding this deadline by going out of the framework convention of the United Nations on climate change (FCUNCC). As it came into effect in 1994, there is no need to wait for the four required years. It would be an extreme but also faster way for the American president to leave the agreement.17 The White House is aware of the possibilities that it has. However, whatever happens, the US will have to remain in the agreement for a more or less long period of time before it can start the process of getting out of it.18

Sing in favor of the Paris Agreement | Courtesy of The Hill

If it has, consequently, no legal impact, the document sent to the UN has a political nature. Donald Trump tries to show to his partisans that he will keep his electoral election pledge, but he does not close the door to a possible “re-engagement.” This is a double game: Trump mixes at the same time virulent denunciations of the agreement and the proposal “to renegotiate” it.19

Moreover, the purpose of the communication of August 4 “is not clear” either, estimates the American jurist Susan Biniaz. However, this specialist of the climatic diplomacy, whom she followed during more than twenty-five years within the State Department, recognizes that the document has the virtue of clarifying an important point: “the intention to withdraw applies only to the Paris Agreement. Thus, the United States is going to be able to continue to participate in the negotiations relative to the climate outside of the accord.” 20 A note of the State Department intended for the American diplomats in an office abroad, revealed on August 8 by Reuters confirms this choice of staying at the table of the discussions “to protect the interests of the United States.” 21

According to the same logic, despite the fact that the American government decided to stop financing the Green Fund for the climate, announced on June 1, Washington “will continue to participate in the meetings to make sure that the money of the American taxpayers previously committed is managed appropriately.” 22 Thus, a delegation represented the United States at the COP23, which happened this month, in Bonn, Germany.23

It would nevertheless be surprising that the United States would never go back on this decision. Indeed, history has shown that it only takes a change in the presidency to reverse the position of the US on the issue, and the American government will not be able to avoid the problem of the global warming forever. Several States already took important initiatives to check their greenhouse gas emissions. The Americans are also in the foreground of the research and the development of innovative energy technologies, and their capacity to control their gas emissions will not disappear, with or without Trump. The resistance to the progress on climate changes will not disappear either, but the political pendulum will return sooner or later to a position more favorable for an action. The retreat of the Agreement of Paris of the United States aroused a wave of reactions in the world to show their regret for the decision of Donald Trump.24 However, some experts on the diplomacy of the climate adopt another view: “It is better that he [Trump] is outside the agreement, rather than he pulls it downwards,” considers Mohamed Adow, a specialist on the climate. 25

To have a country as influential as the United States that would slow down the discussions on the application of the Paris Agreement in the annual COP was a fear among the experts. “The United States could cause more damages inside than outside of the agreement,” abounds Luke Kemp. 26 Numerous rules are still in need of being defined in order to apply the Paris Agreement, in particular concerning the first collective balance sheet of the efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, planned in 2018, and the transparency of the climatic politics of countries. The idea of a renegotiation of the Paris Agreement ruled out by numerous political leaders, was qualified as “posture” by the regular customers of these discussions. “The United States can propose what they want, but no country is going to join them in the negotiating table,” anticipates the expert of the Union of Concerned Scientists Alden Meyer, who has been following these negotiations for more than twenty years. 27

The agreement sealed in December 2015, in Paris, was the fruit of years of laborious negotiations, which had previously failed in Copenhagen in 2009, before starting again with the objective to succeed in 2015. “The agreement of Paris is the best compromise possible,” declares Ahmed Sareer, representative in the United Nations of the Maldive Islands and the Small Island States.28

People protesting the Trump’s decision and part of the movement “We’re still in” | Courtesy of Texas Impact

“What is utopian, is to think that the world is going to be able to continue like that, by adding injustices, and believe that it is going to bring the peace in the world. We are collapsing under the avalanche of more and more alarming reports. And we try to reassure ourselves with a multitude of declarations of intentions and good resolutions. If the awareness progresses, its concrete translation remains derisory. The humanity has to regain self-control, get out of its indifference and finally start taking care of our planet. It is a time for our politicians have to take measures as high as these stakes,” says Nicolas Hulot, head of the French Ministry of the Environment.29 Today, it is not only the heads of state who underline their support for the Paris Agreement, but also of CEOs of large international companies, mayors of big cities, leaders of American states, such as California.30 The French Prime Minister denounced the “disastrous decision” of the American President. The spokesman of United Nations communicated his “great disappointment.” There is a real dynamic around this agreement, and the decision of Donald Trump should not be enough to stop it. Eventually, President Trump will have managed to generate what was lacking in the Paris Agreement: a political commitment at the highest level.31

  1.  Clemencon Raymond, “The two sides of the Paris climate agreement: dismal failure or historic breakthrough?, Environment & Development no. 1 (2016): 25.
  2. Glenn Sheriff, Burden Sharing Under the Paris Climate Agreement (NCEE, 2016), 31, 32, 34, 59.
  3.  Daniel R. Klein, The Paris Agreement on Climate Change: Analysis and Commentary (Oxford, 2017), 132, 134.
  4.  Joshua Mcbee, “Distributive Justice in the Paris Climate Agreement: Response to Peter and AL,” Contemporary Readings In Law & Social Justice 9, no. 1, January (2017): 22, 23.
  5. William Moomaw and Patrick Verkooijen, “The Future of the Paris Climate Agreement: Carbon Pricing as a Pathway to Climate Sustainability null,” Fletcher Forum Of World Affairs no.1 (2017): 238.
  6. Clemency Raymond, President Trump Decides To Pull U.S. Out Of Paris Climate Agreement (All Things Considered, 2017), 456, 457.
  7.  Joshua Mcbee, “Distributive Justice in the Paris Climate Agreement: Response to Peter and AL,” Contemporary Readings In Law & Social Justice 9, no. 1 (2017): 51.
  8. Kevin Liptak and Jim Acosta, Watch: Trump announces withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement (CNN, 2017), 11.
  9. Alex Bastien, “Retrait des États-Unis de l’Accord de Paris : quels impacts ?” (Iris, 2017).
  10. NPR Transcript, “White House Defends U.S. Withdrawal From Paris Climate Agreement,” All Things Considered (2017): 90, 91.
  11.  Brad Plumer, “What to Expect as U.S. Leaves Paris Climate Accord,” The New York Times (June 1, 2017).
  12. Rajamani Lavanya, “Ambition and differentiation in the 2015 Paris Agreement: Interpretative Possibilities and underlying Politics,” International and Comparative Law Quarterly 65, no. 2 (2016): 498, 499.
  13.  Joshua Mcbee, “Distributive Justice in the Paris Climate Agreement: Response to Peter and AL,” Contemporary Readings In Law & Social Justice 9, no. 1 (2017): 123.
  14. Lucas Garín, “Novedades del Sistema de Protección Internacional de Cambio Climático: el Acuerdo de París / News of the Climate Change Protection System: the Paris Agreement,” Estudios Internacionales, no. 186 (2017): 76.
  15. César Escudero, El Acuerdo de París. Predominio del soft law en el régimen climático / The Paris Agreement. The predominance of Soft Law in the Climate Regime,” Boletín Mexicano De Derecho Comparado no. 147 (2016): 99.
  16.  Coral Davenport, “Climate Pact Negotiators Confront a New Peril,” The New York Times, (November 19, 2016).
  17.  Raymond Clemencon, “The two sides of the Paris climate agreement: dismal failure or historic breakthrough?” Environment & Development no. 1 (2016:): 3.
  18. Sandrine Maljean-Dubois, Thomas Spencer, and Matthieu Wemaere, “The Legal Form of the Paris Climate Agreement: a Comprehensive Assessment of Options,” Carbon & Climate Law Review no.1 (2015): 68.
  19.  Delali Benjamin Dovie and Shuaib Lwasa, “Correlating negotiation hotspot issues, Paris climate agreement and the international climate policy regime,” Environmental Science & Policy, (2017): 5, 6.
  20. Daniel Bodansky, “The Paris climate change agreement: a new hope?.” International Law (2016) 301.
  21. Wolfgang Obergassel, An Analysis of the Paris Agreement to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Energie, 2016), 124.
  22. Wolfgang Obergassel, An Analysis of the Paris Agreement to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Energie, 2016), 126.
  23. Robert O. Keohane and Michael Oppenheimer, “Paris: Beyond the Climate Dead End through Pledge and Review?,” Politics And Governance no.3 (2016): 158.
  24.  Joshua Mcbee, “Distributive Justice in the Paris Climate Agreement: Response to Peter and AL,” Contemporary Readings In Law & Social Justice 9, no. 1 (2017): 112, 113.
  25. Radoslav S. Dimitrov, The Paris agreement on climate change: Behind closed doors (Global Environmental Politics, 2016).
  26.  Susan G. Mason, Climate Change in Cities (2018), 13.
  27.  Joeri Rogelj, “Paris Agreement climate proposals need a boost to keep warming well below 2 C.” (Nature, 2016), 635.
  28.   Rajamani Lavanya, “Ambition and differentiation in the 2015 Paris Agreement: Interpretative Possibilities and underlying Politics,” International and Comparative Law Quarterly 65, no. 2 (2016): 381, 382.
  29. Un accord contraignant pour limiter la hausse des températures adopté (RTS, 2015).
  30. The Paris Agreement, Status of ratification (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2017).
  31. Joel Cossardeaux and Richard Hiault, Les 7 acquis de l’accord de Paris (Les Echos, 2015).
The Paris Agreement: A Historic Climate Accord
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