What's the Impact of The US Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement?

Trump withdrew from the Paris agreement in early June 2017. Not surprisingly, there was a big reaction. We were meeting with one of our ReConsider Cabinet members discussing the withdrawal the day it happened (as expected, great conversation). One thing we learned immediately hearing from her was that she had done much more research on the Paris Agreement and the withdrawal's implications than we had, so we did some research! You're welcome.

The ReConsider Gut-Check

Time to eat your vegetables.

Regardless of how you feel about the withdrawal, now's a moment to take stock: how much did you know about the agreement when you made your initial reaction? What do you think it contained? Did you know, and educate yourself? 

If not, can you know what the implications--good or bad--for the United States and the world could be? 

We'll summarize the basics of the agreement and then based on that summary discuss the likely implications. (Note we didn't read the whole thing, but read a breadth of summaries and dove into a few key parts. If there are any inaccuracies, let us know.) When you read the summary below, check that against what you believed was in the agreement before reading.

What Is In the Agreement?

Despite lots of paperwork, the agreement boils down to just a few core parts, with a few key things to keep in mind.

The Core Parts

1) Each country gets to voluntarily choose "Nationally Determined Contributions" (NDCs). These contributions represent the portion of CO2 output that each country will be reducing from its current output. These are *cough* "required" to be "ambitious" and to "represent a progression over time." But ultimately each country chooses their contribution on their own. Yes, you can be a signatory and choose to increase your CO2 contribution (which is the case for many developing nations--China, for example, is committed to "peaking" in 2030). The United States' NDC is reducing CO2 production by 26% by the year 2025.

2) Every 5 years there is a "global stock-taking." In this, each country submits a report on its progress to its NDC to the UNFCCC Secretariat. These are made public.

3) There is wording to set up a global carbon trading market in order for countries to make money by getting ahead of their NDCs and selling carbon credits.

4) There is a "Sustainable Development Mechanism" meant to support environmentally sustainable economic development. However, there is not yet any structure or process. In essence, it doesn't yet represent anything, and it will be hashed out later.

5) The only really concrete thing in the agreement is the "Green Climate Fund," where the developed countries in the agreement committed to contribute $100 billion per year to developing nations between the years of 2020 and 2025 for climate change mitigation (reducing CO2) and adaptation (dealing with the impact of climate change).

That's it. As far as we can tell, it adds a reporting mechanism to "name and shame" (not our words) countries publicly, and provide some money to developing nations. 

To Keep in Mind

1) There are no enforcement mechanisms. The only binding commitment is the 5-year reporting requirement. Everything else is completely voluntary.

2) The lack of enforcement mechanisms was why the United States was able to become a member without approval by Senate. Because there is no binding law, it did not have to be passed as a law--therefore, President Obama was able to enter the agreement unilaterally--and Trump was able to leave it unilaterally.

3) To meet their NDCs, each country needs to develop policy internally to encourage (or force) a change in their economy.

Direct Implications of the US Leaving

Trump made the case in his speech announcing the withdrawal that staying in Paris would have cost the US economy trillions of dollars and millions of jobs, and that it was unfair to the US to be sending billions of dollars overseas to developing nations. 

National Geographic makes a six-point argument why the US leaving Paris won't derail reduction in CO2 output. The crux of the argument is "the economic forces are already in place and Washington policy probably wasn't going to change that much." However, there are a few direct implications, some of which are speculative:

1) Upon exit, the US is no longer publicly committed to meeting its 26% NDC reduction

2) Upon exit, the US is no longer publicly committed to contributing an undefined amount of money to the Green Climate Fund

3) Fact-checking Trump's numbers is a bit beyond our scope, but we'll just say that there's disagreement among economists (big surprise) over the economic and employment impact of Paris:

4) Some academics have speculated that the US pulling out reduces the motivation and pressure for other countries to meet their targets. Others think that the opportunity to become the world leader on the environment will cause big economics like the EU, China, and India to meet their commitments in order to have the leadership honor.

To Keep in Mind...

1) None of this was binding in the first place, so the decision to leave might have absolutely zero impact on what US policy on CO2 emissions would look like over the next few years. 

2) The United States had the option to reduce its NDC target.

3) Trump chose to pull out on the official Paris timeline, rather than right away. Turns out that the US signed onto the Paris agreement on November 4, 2016, and under the Agreement any pulling out would actually take effect 4 years later. That means the US isn't actually "out" until the day after the next Presidential election. It's possible the US will only be out for a few months. The next president--if Trump is not re-elected--could sign the US back in on day one.

It's not clear that leaving has any substantial impact on global CO2 emissions vs. Trump simply continuing business-as-normal. Whether it would depends on to what extent the pressure from the 5-year stock-taking would have influenced the Trump administration's decisions. Feel free to speculate.

Political Implications

We're actually pretty surprised he did it, given all of the above. Trump is probably not too worried about the impact on American soft power in the world--his foreign policy approach seems deeply realist at heart. But for the time being, it has brought a lot of flak from leaders of other signatories. Whether that seriously impacts US power on the global stage is yet to be seen, and whether you're a realist or a liberal in the school of foreign policy is likely to change your outlook on that.

But the domestic effect is something he probably knew about, and it's a doozy. Fully 69% of Americans supported staying in the Paris Agreement, with only 13% against. 51% of Republicans wanted to stay in, vs only 26% that wanted to leave. Even in the coal-centric West Virginia, 52% of Americans wanted to stay. This is a level of agreement that's incredibly rare in current American politics. The move to leave is, simply put, very unpopular.

The other really interesting political fallout is Trump may be inadvertently Making States Rights Great Again. New York, California, and Washington committed to keeping to the US's NDC, and other states, including Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, Florida, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Maryland have set emissions reductions targets for themselves.  

This both practically and symbolically shifts power from DC to state capitols, loosening DC's grip on governing the country centrally.

What's Really Surprising

Given general DC dysfunction, Trump probably could have gotten away with quietly stonewalling any direct policy to reduce CO2 emissions, and not put the Green Climate Fund numbers into his budget. The public stock-taking "shaming" wouldn't even take effect until 2021. It's surprising that Trump went for such a major--and unpopular--announcement when he could have simply quietly ignored it without any direct repercussions.

In fact, even if he wanted to be "above board," he could have just declared that the US would alter its NDC reduction target and Green Climate Fund contribution. It's specifically in the text to keep a country from having to choose "in or out."

So why did Trump leave the Paris agreement? We're actually still not sure.

Some Key Sources


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.