Two months after its announcement that it would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the United States formally submitted notice to the United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, on August 4, 2017 that it intends to withdraw as soon as it is eligible to do so. [UN News Centre] The Paris Agreement, which was developed to support the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), has been described as the first universal, legally binding instrument to impose specific obligations on both developed and developing nations to address climate change.
The United States’ decision to withdraw has drawn international criticism, and the country’s suggestion that there is opportunity for “re-engaging in the Paris Agreement” has drawn skepticism given that one country cannot unilaterally call for the renegotiation of an agreement signed by 195 States after several years of negotiations. See UNFCCC, UNFCCC Statement on the US Decision to Withdraw from the Paris Agreement. [Reuters] Nevertheless, a spokesperson for the Secretary General has stated that any effort to reengage in the Paris Agreement would be welcome. [UN News Centre] The Paris Agreement does not permit withdrawal by submission of written notification until three years after the date that the Agreement entered into force for the State party wishing to withdraw, and withdrawal does not take effect until a year after the notice is submitted. See Paris Agreement, art. 28. When its withdrawal takes effect, the United States will join Syria and Nicaragua as the only States parties to the UNFCCC that have not, at least, signed the Paris Agreement. See UNFCCC, Paris Agreement – Status of Ratification; Status of Ratification of the Convention.
Notice to Withdrawal
The United States announced on June 1, 2017 its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. [UN News Centre] When the president of the United States, Donald Trump, first announced his intention to withdraw from the Agreement, he said it would hurt the oil, gas, and coal industries in the country, and indicated that the State is open to renegotiating the widely ratified Agreement. [Reuters] The Secretariat of the UNFCCC stated that they regret the State’s intent to withdraw. See UNFCCC, UNFCCC Statement on the US Decision to Withdraw from the Paris Agreement. A representative of the UN called the decision to withdraw a “major disappointment for global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” [UN News Centre]
The Paris Agreement
To date, 159 of the 195 States signatories have ratified the Paris Agreement. See UNFCCC, Status Ratification. Those States that have ratified the agreement are bound to the obligations in it, including to combat climate change, to invest in a sustainable low carbon future, and to adapt to climate change’s increasing impacts. Specifically, the Paris Agreement seeks to limit the global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) with the goal of limiting the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius; in order to achieve this goal, the agreement indicates that States parties should set out to attain the global peak of greenhouse gas emissions soon and should, after reaching that peak, rapidly reduce emissions to achieve a balance between human-caused emissions and removals of emissions by “greenhouse sinks,” such as forests. See Paris Agreement, arts. 2, 4. [New York Times]
To achieve the above goal and to hold States accountable, the agreement requires certain accountability measures. First, under Article 4, States parties must develop nationally determined contributions to reduce emissions and domestic measures to meet those set contributions. Each State party is obligated to update their nationally determined contribution, which must reflect a commitment beyond that of the State’s previous contribution. See Paris Agreement, art. 4. States parties, though, may voluntarily decide to go beyond their nationally determined contributions to participate in cooperative engagement in reducing emissions, assisting other States in meeting their goals. See id. at art. 6. Additionally, Article 13 of the Paris Agreement creates a transparency framework “to promote effective implementation” and includes regular reporting and review, including on sources of man-made emissions and removal of emissions by sinks of greenhouse gases. See id. at art. 13.
Additionally, under the agreement, States parties are expected to support and implement frameworks seeking to preserve forests and reduce emissions from deforestation; to ensure that developed countries take the lead in financing sustainable climate action plans; and to increase awareness of and aim to address and minimize “loss and damage” that occurs as a result of climate change, among other expectations. See id. at arts. 5, 8, 9. [New York Times]
Under Article 28 of the Paris Agreement, a State party may withdraw by written notice at any time after three years from the date that the Paris Agreement entered into force for that State party, and the withdrawal will take effect one year after the Depositary receives written notice to withdraw. See Paris Agreement, art. 28. The Paris Agreement entered into force for the United States on November 4, 2016, and the United States submitted its notice to withdraw on August 4, 2017. [UN News Centre]
While the UN statement on the matter indicated that the United States must remain a party to the Paris Agreement until at least November 4, 2019, others are reporting that the United States must remain a State party until November 4, 2020. [UN News Centre; Reuters] The latter interpretation reads Article 28 of the Agreement to mean that a State may not submit notice of withdrawal prior to three years after the date of entry into force and then must wait the additional year until the withdrawal takes effect.
Climate Change & Human Rights
Climate change has been linked to the denial of certain basic human rights. The effects of climate change can impact the rights to life, health, water, food, housing, development, and self-determination. See Report of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, UN Doc. A/HRC/31/52, 1 February 2016, para. 23. The rise in temperatures across the world are associated with displacement, a decline in productivity, death, food insecurity, and increased poverty. See id. at para. 24, 27. States have duties arising out of international human rights law to protect against the infringement on human rights caused by environmental harm. This includes protecting against threats to the right to life posed by foreseeable natural disasters. See id. at paras. 37, 38; ECtHR, Budayeva and others v. Russia, no. 15339/02, ECHR 2008, Judgment of 20 March 2008.
United States’ International Legal Obligations
As a State party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which entered into force on March 21, 1994, the United States is required to stabilize its greenhouse gas concentrations “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human induced) interference with the climate system.” See UNFCCC, Introducing the UNFCCC. The United States is also a party to several international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which requires States parties to protect, respect, and fulfill the right to life under Article 6.
The United States is also a State party to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD); the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT); and the Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography and on the involvement of children in armed conflict. See OHCHR, Ratification Status for United States of America.
In a historic move, 195 nations came together at the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change held in Paris, France and adopted the Paris Agreement on December 12, 2015. The Paris Agreement, entered into force on November 4, 2016 after 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of global emissions, including the United States, deposited their instruments of ratification. See UNFCCC, Status Ratification.
For more information on economic, social, and cultural rights, including those of indigenous peoples and environmental rights; prior coverage of the 19th, 20th, and 21st UN Framework Convention on Climate Change sessions; the 2014 UN Climate Summit; or the UN Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.