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Sept. 22 — Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump said if he becomes president he would “renegotiate” or “cancel” the international Paris Agreement on climate change.
Assuming Trump is elected Nov. 8, how close he could come to keeping that vow could well be determined in large part before Inauguration Day, which is four months away, expert observers told Bloomberg BNA.
“There are still important variables we have to understand before we can understand the options a possible Trump administration would have,” said Meena Raman, veteran climate campaigner at nonprofit Third World Network. “If the agreement has entered into force, it becomes much harder. If he wants to just ignore it, well, the consequences for that have not yet been decided.”
The U.S. is a signatory to the Paris Agreement, but until the pact becomes international law any signatory can back out. That happens 30 days after at least 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of worldwide emissions deposit their instruments of ratification or acceptance. As of Sept. 22, a total of 60 countries—including the U.S.—representing 47.76 percent of worldwide emissions have taken that step.
The Paris Agreement was finalized last December in the French capital, laying out a legal framework for countries to ratchet down emissions—the first step worldwide toward keeping global warming to within 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to pre-industrial levels. The agreement also calls on industrialized countries to help poor countries adapt to the impacts of climate change.
Trump has called climate change a “hoax” and has said during the presidential primaries that he would renegotiate the deal.
But doing so would require convincing the nearly 200 countries that hammered out the Paris document over the course of six years to come back to the negotiating table because the leader of one country did not like it.
“From someone who was involved [in the negotiations] the first time around, I can only say, “Good luck with that,’ ” Christiana Figueres, the United Nations' top climate official at the time, told Bloomberg BNA earlier this year, when asked about Trump's vow.
Patricia Espinosa, who succeeded Figueres as executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said the 55-55 threshold was likely to be reached soon.
“Today we can say with ever more confidence that this historic moment is likely to come very soon, perhaps even by the time governments meet for the next round of climate negotiations in Marrakech, Morocco,” Espinosa said Sept. 21, referring to the follow up to last year's summit in Paris.
If the 55-55 threshold is reached before Dec. 21, it means the Paris Agreement will be international law by the time the 45th U.S. president is sworn in Jan. 20, 2017. That would mean that a formal withdrawal would fall under the rules of the Paris Agreement's Article 28, which allows any party to the agreement to give notice of its intention to withdraw after at least three years. The withdrawal would become effective one year after that.
“Essentially, the U.S. under a President Trump could not legally withdraw from the Paris Agreement until around the time he would be running for a second term,” Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in an interview.
There is speculation that the U.S. could orchestrate a de facto withdrawal by unilaterally pulling out of the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The reason U.S. President Barack Obama did not need congressional approval to sign onto the Paris deal was because it was consistent with existing law created by the 1992 convention, according to some experts.
But legal experts told Bloomberg BNA that was a potential legal gray area that would in any case mean the U.S. would have no seat at the table in future climate negotiations. It also could trigger trade restrictions with any of the nearly 200 countries that remained part of the convention and wished to pass laws requiring imports to be produced in accordance with the terms of Paris Agreement.
“This would be the messiest possibility to be sure,” one veteran UN legal expert said in an interview, asking not to be further identified. “It would require a determined Trump administration working toward an unclear conclusion.”
But what about just ignoring the obligations of the Paris Agreement, whatever the consequences of that may be? Trump also has said, for example, that he would halt U.S. contributions to the Green Climate Fund to help poor countries adapt to climate change.
Meanwhile, Ulriikka Aarnio, international climate policy coordinator for Climate Action Network-Europe, noted that the U.S. is already beginning to implement laws to reach its target of reducing emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent between 2005 and 2025. But it’s possible that Congress under a Trump administration could reverse those domestic steps and make no effort to live up to its other Paris Agreement obligations.
“That seems like the most likely path,” Aarnio told Bloomberg BNA. “At this point, it's still kind of a philosophical question because the rules for compliance and enforcement are not in place yet.”
A centerpiece of the talks in Marrakech are expected to be a so-called Paris Agreement rule book, which will include a host of measures ranging from compliance issues to reporting and verification. That means the rules that will determine the consequences of a U.S. disregard for the Paris Agreement could be negotiated during Nov. 7–18 climate negotiations that will start before the U.S. election and end after the results are tallied.
“I think if Donald Trump wins on Nov. 8, you will see a lot of scrambling in Morocco to make the consequences of withdrawal as severe as possible,” said the UN legal expert.
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