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The Paris Agreement and the US Withdrawal

Sadbh O’Reilly

On the 12th of December 2015, the historic Paris Agreement was signed; a global effort that sought to combat climate change and adapt to its effects. Of the 197 states party to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), 171 have ratified the Agreement. However, in June 2017, President Donald Trump declared that the United States of America would be withdrawing from the Agreement. This article will explore what the Paris Agreement entails, as well as the reasons for and the implications of Trump’s withdrawal from it.

The Paris Agreement

The main aims of the Agreement are to keep global temperature rise below 2°C, and potentially even 1.5°C, as well as to enhance support mechanisms for dealing with the impact of climate change through finance flows and sustainable development. One of the requirements of the Agreement is for each state to contribute a “nationally determined contribution” (NDC) to reduce emissions, as well as regular reports on their emissions levels and implementation efforts. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol (1997), which focused mainly on the practices of the developed world, the Paris Agreement recognises that climate change is a global problem and that mitigating its impact must be a global effort. The essential elements of the Agreement include, among others, a long-term temperature goal, voluntary cooperation, and finance, technology and capacity-building support. Only two nations refused to sign the Agreement: Syria, which is in the midst of a civil war, and Nicaragua, which advocated for stronger pledges, but has since endorsed the Agreement.

Trump’s Declaration

In 2017, Trump announced his plans to formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement, on the basis that the Agreement would hinder the American economy. In a speech, he declared that the US approach balances a “climate policy that lowers emissions while promoting economic growth and ensuring energy security”. He claimed that if the US were to comply with the Paris Agreement, it would cost the American economy “close to $3 trillion in lost GDP”, and “as much as 2.7 million lost jobs by 2025” in the oil, gas, coal and manufacturing industries. Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell amounted this to “another significant blow to the Obama administration’s assault on domestic energy production and jobs”.

Additionally, Trump opposed the Obama administration’s commitment to a $3 billion contribution to the Green Climate Fund. As the US contributes approximately one third of current carbon dioxide emissions, it is fair to say that the burden of reparations should fall on its shoulders. While it is recognised that this donation is higher than any other nation by total value, the US falls far behind other nations, particularly European nations, in terms of contribution per capita.

Furthermore, Trump doubts the success of the Paris Agreement, suggesting that in its full implementation and with total compliance from all nations, it would equate only to a “tiny, tiny amount” in the reduction in global temperature.

The terms of the Agreement state that no country is permitted to leave the Agreement until November 4th, 2020 – incidentally, one day after the next US presidential election. As the move to withdraw was intended to send a “strong message” to the UN according to the State Department, Trump’s announcement is seen as more of a symbolic gesture. This view was further strengthened by a subsequent announcement that the US will continue to send delegates to represent their interests at future conferences and the suggestion that Trump would be “open to reengaging in the Paris Agreement… if the terms were more favourable [to the US]”.

Implications of the United States’ Departure

The absence of the major superpower as a leader in the pursuit to mitigate climate change will be devastating, both for America and the world. This move should not be underestimated – signatories of Conventions already regularly fail to meet the agreed upon standards. The public refusal to endorse the Convention signifies a division between the aspirations of the international community with regards to the challenges of collective action and the United States’ self-interested motives, potentially inciting other nations to follow suit.

As one of the biggest emitters and hence beneficiaries of maladaptive policies, the US has a moral responsibility to lead by example. Without their cooperation, it is likely that we will reach the critical temperature rise of 2°C sooner than anticipated; subsequently, we will see a rise in extreme weather events, natural disasters, and crop failures. Furthermore, the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement includes withdrawing from contributing to the Green Climate Fund. The Fund was created specifically for developed countries to transfer funds to developing countries in order to support their efforts to mitigate climate change and adapt to its effects. The United States’ refusal to contribute further to the Fund will disproportionally disadvantage developing countries who were not the major sources of the crisis, but also lack the resources to cope with its consequences.

While sustaining the current fossil fuel industries may have short-term benefits for the American economy, the US will lose a critical opportunity to spearhead research in the emerging renewable energy sector that is becoming increasingly important and lucrative. Stewart Patrick from the Council on Foreign Relations predicts that the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Accords could threaten its economic growth and national security in the long run. In 2016, employment in the renewable sector grew by 25% and 32% for the solar energy and wind industry respectively. In addition, China may step in and occupy the vacuum as the leading authority on renewable energy, a venture it has already begun to take by engaging in negotiations with the EU. Emboldening China in power and influence could lead to consequences for other contentious issues involving the two major powers, such as the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Should the US forgo this opportunity, the domestic and international consequences could be bleak.


The United States’ decision to withdraw from the most successful global climate agreement thus far was an unprecedented and reckless move from the most powerful country in the world. The implications of the declaration could cause the US’ reputation as a global leader to wane. As the majority of nations recognise the importance of preventing further global temperature rise and adapting to the effects of climate change that are currently occurring, many may turn to China as it assumes the authority in renewable energy technology. However, the political ramifications do not compare to the effects that the US’ withdrawal will have on climate change. As one of the largest carbon emitters on the planet, Trump’s decision marks a regressive step in the fight against climate change. The world can only hope that Trump has more bark than bite and honours the vital commitment his predecessor made to the international community.