Reporting on COP: Can Trump Trump the Paris Agreement?

The following article is part of an Eco-Perspective special in which the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law is collaborating with the VLS COP22 Observer Delegation

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By DJ Haskin

“How do you see the future of the Paris Agreement without, possibly, you?”

TrumpOn Thursday, Venezuela posed this question to the U.S. delegation during the facilitative dialogue for enhanced action and support. The U.S. delegate spoke about how a Trump presidency may impact international efforts to combat climate change. South Africa asked the U.S. a follow-up question, giving the delegate some additional speaking time to elaborate. While acknowledging he could not speak to the intentions of the new administration, the delegate pointed out that the global effort is strong, as evidenced by the rapid entry into force of the Paris Agreement. His candid and articulate responses drew applause from those in attendance, but is he right?

The Paris Agreement entered into force on November 4, 2016, less than a year after it was crafted at COP 21. The Agreement provides Parties with more flexibility than previous international climate agreements. The Parties agreed to adopt a bottom-up approach in which all Parties pledge contributions to the global effort. This approach resulted in 190 climate plans based in national priorities and interests.  Even if the U.S. reneges on its contribution, the other parties are still committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the effects of climate change. The status of the U.S. in the Paris Agreement has nothing to do with China and India’s need to clean up their cities and protect the health of their citizens.

During his campaign, Mr. Trump promised to withdraw U.S. support for the Paris Agreement if elected. He believes that the Agreement gives foreign governments control over how much energy the U.S. uses. This understanding is inaccurate, as the Agreement does nothing to impose limits on energy use. There are no top-down limitations.

To withdraw from the Agreement the U.S. would need to meet the obligations in Article 28. No party may withdraw from the Agreement until three years after it enters into force. Additionally, the withdrawal only takes effect one year after the date of receipt by the Depositary of the notification of withdrawal. However, withdrawal from the UNFCCC, which takes effect a year after written notification of withdrawal is received, constitutes withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Thus, the U.S. withdrawal could be effective as early as January 2018.

The election of Donald Trump does not guarantee that all is lost when it comes to the global effort to combat climate change. Many participants at COP 22 have said that it is now up to the rest of the world to lead the charge and redouble their efforts. Others remain hopefully that Trump will change his tune now that he no longer has to cozy up to the oil industry. However, the U.S.’s action could establish a bad precedent going forward and may encourage other Parties to withdraw their support. Dana Fisher, director of the Program for Society and the Environment at the University of Maryland, said “[t]he Paris Agreement and any U.S. leadership in international climate progress is dead” But is he right?

Only time will tell.