Analysis

US To Formally Abandon Paris Climate Deal, For Now

Law360 (November 4, 2020, 3:12 AM EST) -- The U.S. on Wednesday will become the first and only member of the Paris Agreement on climate change to officially withdraw, leaving it to a future administration to decide whether the country will take up the mantle as a global leader on the issue.

President Donald Trump said in 2017 that he'd abandon the United Nations agreement, which aims to hold global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, but because of the deal's structure, it took another three years for the exit to become official. Despite the U.S. technically being a member of the agreement for the past four years, the Trump administration has not taken any official policy actions designed to fulfill the country's commitment.

The meaning of Wednesday's gesture won't be lost on the international community, said Jeff Holmstead, a partner at Bracewell LLP. With the U.S.' exit, there are now 196 signatories to the deal.

"It's politically significant, it's symbolically significant," he said. "It certainly has been one of the things that has soured the Trump administration's relationship with a number of countries throughout the world, especially the European Union countries."

In contrast to the contractual mechanisms that kept the U.S. from withdrawing from the agreement sooner, there are no such conditions to sign up, and it's unlikely that there would be any opposition in the event another administration would want to rejoin, as Joe Biden promised to do if he were elected.

"There's a path back in, because the negotiators from the other nations are realists and they see that it's much more valuable to have the U.S. in the agreement than out," said Paul Weiland, a partner at Nossaman LLP and chair of the firm's environment and land use group. "It would be the same if China had dropped out and wanted back in — it would be foolish to not give them that path because otherwise it makes it much more difficult to meet our ultimate goals."

In 2016, when President Barack Obama signed on to the agreement, the U.S. declared its "nationally determined contribution" would be to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26% to 28% below its 2005 level by 2025 and to "make best efforts" to hit that 28% target. In addition, the U.S. pledged to sink $3 billion into the Green Climate Fund, a UN-founded initiative that invests in climate adaptation and mitigation activities in developing countries.

But there's no legally binding aspect to the Paris Agreement, so the Trump administration's decision to drop those goals hasn't come with any real penalty.

The U.S. is making some progress, just not as quickly as the Obama administration had hoped. Earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that since 2005, national greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 10%.

Alex Hanafi, director of the Environmental Defense Fund's Multilateral Climate Strategy and lead counsel of the EDF's Global Climate Program, said in the absence of U.S. leadership, other nations and groups of nations have forged ahead toward their own emissions reduction goals.

"The EU and China are already stepping up on their climate action," he said. "We saw an announcement from China recently saying they will be carbon neutral by 2060 and they have upped their 2030 climate target to make that more ambitious. And the EU, for their part, is expected in December to approve a new, more ambitious headline target for their 2030 emissions goal of 55% below 1990 levels."

As the impacts of climate change, such as rising sea levels, increased temperatures and the knock-on effects of those phenomena, have become more visible and pronounced even in just the past few years, Holmstead said it's probably just a matter of time before another president rejoins the Paris Agreement. If that happens, the U.S. will have to set a new nationally determined contribution.

"The question is, would they base it, as the Obama administration did, on the assumption that there won't be any congressional action, that it will be entirely done through administrative actions?" Holmstead said. "Or will they announce that they are supporting some kind of new legislation that would actually speed up the reductions in CO2 emissions?"

Those pushing for dramatic action on emissions reductions have wrung their hands during the Trump administration, as the EPA and other agencies have rolled back standards for power plant, vehicle, and oil and gas emissions. But even still, market forces have helped along the process of achieving reductions, as coal has fallen out of favor and renewable energy sources have become more affordable and gained ground.

And Weiland said that's likely to continue, regardless of what the federal government does or doesn't do.

"The only way solar and wind made sense for a long time was because they were being propped up, frankly, in the market by the government. But that's changed," he said.

Individual states are also free to create their own emissions goals, although the Trump administration is attempting to stop California and several other states from limiting GHG emissions from cars more strictly than the federal government.

Leadership at the federal level would have a strong effect, though, Holmstead said.

"I think the expectation among people who are part of the Paris climate community is that if the United States were to rejoin and set an ambitious goal, then other countries would do the same," he said.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment about the exit.

--Additional reporting by Keith Goldberg and Matthew Santoni. Editing by Aaron Pelc and Jack Karp.

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