Breaking Down the Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement, considered the world’s first comprehensive climate agreement,  was established under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The agreement went into effect on November 4th, 2016 upon being ratified by 55 nations around the world.

As stated in its Article II, the Paris Agreement aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty. To accomplish this, the agreement contains the following objectives:

“(a) Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change;

(b) Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production;

(c) Making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate resilient development”

The full text of the Paris Agreement can be viewed here: http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09r01.pdf

These provisions as well as the overall structure of the agreement have sparked both appraisals and critiques upon its implementation.

One source of praise stems from the inclusive and top-down structure of this agreement, which greatly differs from climate agreements of the past ⎼ such as the Kyoto Protocol.

For example, as a report from the Center for American Progress states, “[The Paris Agreement] will apply to all parties to the UNFCCC—including the major emerging economies, such as India and China—rather than requiring emissions reductions only from developed countries, as was the case in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. In addition, the national climate goals that countries submit to be associated with the agreement will have political rather than legal force and will be nationally determined.”

Critics, on the other hand, have largely identified potential weaknesses in reasonability of the agreement, considering it “too ambitious” and unable to meet its objectives in a timely manner.

The International Energy Agency’s 2016 World Outlook Report estimated that reaching goal of keeping temperatures “well-below” 2 degrees celsius was very unlikely, as even with international CO² reduction, temperatures are expected to increase by at least 2.7 degrees celsius by 2100.

Furthermore, one can take note of the non-obligatory nature of the Paris Agreement that can spark worries over the realistic nature of its objectives. With no legal obligation or limits set on emissions, for instance, some critics view the agreement as enabling mere “promises” of nations as opposed to physical fulfillment of goals.

In a time dire for relief of climate change, is it necessary to value force over courtesy? Perhaps volunteerism is no longer enough in the international arena.

However, in the United States, recently-elected President Donald J. Trump puts forth a new set of questions. His plans to exit the agreement are now combatting the thoughts of his advisors, leading to the ultimate question of whether the US will continue to be a member of the Paris Agreement.

Trusted advisors to Trump, such as Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have recently been pushing Trump to maintain the United States’ seat within the Paris Agreement. Whether these efforts will vanquish Trump’s previously stated plans to exit this agreement is currently unknown. In addition, it is important to consider the influence of other leaders advocating for Trump’s original plans. Scott Pruitt, who is both the current President of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a leading advocate for the US exit from the Paris Agreement,  serves as a primary example of this.

As of now, much uncertainty hovers in the air as we await Trump’s postponed meeting with senior administration officials to discuss the next steps of the US relating to the agreement.

So, what would happen if the US exited the Paris Agreement?

One suggestion underlines that a withdrawal from the deal could create major diplomatic problems, which entail disrupting leadership both within and out of energy sectors. However, as Kevin Book, an analyst at ClearView Energy Partners suggests, “This idea that environmental protection and economic growth are contrary are just wrong, and we’ve proven that over the years as we have reduced the pollutants in the air, increased the population, increased our energy demand and watched our GDP more than double....risks from withdrawing from the Paris deal include not only diplomatic ill will, but also the possibility of trade reprisals.” Specifically, withdrawal could potentially subject the US to high carbon-tariffs on foreign imports as well.

In contrast, it is important to acknowledge the advocates for US removal from the Paris deal. For instance, the inclusivity and non-binding nature of the agreement has presented the idea that not much would happen with a US withdrawal.  "I don’t think the Paris Agreement is going to fall apart even if the U.S. walks away from it," says Todd Stern, the chief U.S. climate change negotiator under Obama.

After all, recent data have shown a good trajectory of progress put forth by the EU and China. The EU’s continual reduction of greenhouse gas emissions coupled with China’s progress towards utilizing renewable energy suggest that perhaps the world would still be okay without the presence of the US in a primary seat against climate change.

Some critics also have supported a withdrawal from the Paris deal through discussing the impacts of maintaining the status quo. For example, as with any set of targets or timetables, the concern over growth of the domestic energy industry is brought to the forefront. Groups such as the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, have additionally used costs to taxpayers in previous efforts against climate change as leverage for a withdrawal from the deal.

At the end of the day, we are left with an unpredictable time frame before Trump makes a decision about US involvement in the Paris Agreement. Whether the US pulls out or not, it is important to realize what the repercussions are for both our nation and the entire world. Indeed, it can be said that the Paris Agreement has created a very unique method of mobilizing the world to combat climate change. However, to restate some previous lingering questions, is this uniqueness enough? Perhaps US involvement does not matter to combat global warming. Maybe we can go so far to say that all nations in the agreement will be unsuccessful at mitigating the effects of climate change. However, in the battle against climate change, the questions of who will make the effort to put a foot forward are the ones at the forefront. Hence, all we can do is wait anxiously for an action taken by the Trump Administration in the coming weeks.