America First, Paris Last: Does the America First Policy Mean the Death of the Paris Agreement?

Obama and Trump
Image by Pete Souza | November 2016

By Aleksandar Vuksic

Despite its shortcomings, and there are a few,[1] the Paris Agreement (Agreement) was a monumental achievement. Although the euphoria was not shared amongst all climate scientists, the international cooperation and new approach to climate diplomacy that was achieved cannot be understated.[2] It is no surprise then that when President Trump announced that the United States would be withdrawing from the Agreement the world watched with bated breath. Two important questions arise from this move. Why were we surprised? And what legal and practical effects will this withdrawal have on the status of the Agreement itself?

Regardless of how disingenuous Trump’s campaign may have been, one cannot deny that the slogan ‘Make America Great Again!’ managed to rally the silent majority that the left had taken for granted. The Trump Administration would make America great again by putting her first. The working class would be Trump’s trump card. However, due to the highly federalised structure of the US, President Trump could not make America great again from within unless he had the support of the Senate and the States. Pulling out of the Agreement was Trump’s way of putting America first and bringing back the jobs. No one who followed Trump’s rise to power should have been surprised by the withdrawal. For those in the US blind to the economic benefits of the Agreement,[3] withdrawing from it is an electoral mandate.

Now to the Agreement itself.

Most commentators expected the Agreement to come into force around 2020. However, Article 21 provides for the Agreement to enter into force on the 30th day after the date on which at least 55 Parties to the Agreement that account for at least 55% of the world’s emissions sign and ratify. This threshold was reached on 4 November 2016.[4] 158 of the 195 Parties have ratified, making up approximately 86% of global emissions.[5] The reason behind this threshold was to ensure that most of the world’s largest emitters ratify the Agreement. As can be seen in Table 1, the top 10 emitters make up almost 58% of all global emissions.

Table 1: Top 10 global emitters that have ratified the Paris Agreement.

Country % of Global Emissions Status and Entry into Force
China 20.09% Signed and Ratified – 4 Nov 2016
Unites States of America 17.89% Signed and Ratified – 4 Nov 2016
India 4.10% Signed and Ratified – 4 Nov 2016
Japan 3.79% Signed and Ratified – 8 Nov 2016
Germany 2.56% Signed and Ratified – 4 Nov 2016
Brazil 2.48% Signed and Ratified – 4 Nov 2016
Canada 1.95% Signed and Ratified – 4 Nov 2016
Republic of Korea 1.85% Signed and Ratified – 3 Dec 2016
Mexico 1.70% Signed and Ratified – 4 Nov 2016
United Kingdom 1.55% Signed and Ratified – 18 Dec 2016
Total % of emissions 57.96%

Fun Fact: Out of the 37 Parties still to ratify only 3 account for global emissions above 1%. They are the Russian Federation, Iran, and Turkey.[6]

The US is still included in those figures because of Article 28, which provides a mechanism for a party to withdraw.[7] A party may only withdraw from the Agreement three years after the date on which the Agreement entered into force for that party, with withdrawal taking effect approximately one year later. Therefore, the earliest the US could withdraw from the Agreement would be on 4 November 2020. Without the US, the parties that have ratified the Agreement currently account for around 68% of global missions. Legally, the withdrawal will have no effect on the status of the Agreement.

Practically, however, the situation is not as straightforward. On one hand, the Agreement requires Parties to put forward their voluntary nationally determined contributions (NDCs).[8] The consequences of not meeting an NDC are best described as the international relations version of peer pressure. As a result, even if the US cannot currently withdraw from the Agreement it can simply choose to not meet its NDC without much consequence. This is where the withdrawal is seen as a huge blow to the Agreement by many. If one of the world’s largest emitters and diplomatic leaders in the Agreement’s inception chooses to not honour the Agreement, what is stopping other Parties from doing the same?

On the other hand, economic realities could drive US compliance with the Agreement despite the withdrawal. Employment in the renewable energy industry is growing, coal power is becoming less economically viable, and US industries will not allow themselves to fall behind globally.[9] The Global Covenant of Mayors has also vowed to meet their Agreement commitments whether the Trump Administrations agrees to or not.[10] Several US states comprising of approximately one fifth of US emissions have made similar commitments.[11] In a recent speech given to the Perth USAsia Centre, Australia’s Ambassador for the Environment noted that the US’ ever-increasing transition to natural gas would put the country on track to meets its initial NDC targets. Internationally, it appears that at least for the time being the withdrawal has strengthened the commitments of the remaining major emitters to honour the Agreement.[12]

As a result, the Agreement is holding strong despite US plans to withdraw. Legally the Agreement is safe. Practically it appears, at least for the time being, that the Agreement is just as strong. The remaining Parties are just as committed to the Agreement as they have ever been. In a show of “tremendous” irony, the ‘America First’ policy could be strengthening the world’s resolve to see the Agreement through.

Aleksandar Vuksic is a third-year Juris Doctor Student at the University of Western Australia with an honours degree in Environmental Biology. His hobbies include trees, procrastinating by endlessly watching documentaries, and writing bad bios.

[1] See, for example, Adrian E Raftery et al, ‘Less than 2°C warming by 2100 unlikely’ (2017) Nature Climate Change <;.

[2] David Victor, ‘Why Paris Worked: A Different Approach to Climate Diplomacy’, Yale Environment 360 (online), 15 December 2015 <>.

[3] Nick Stockton, ‘Ditching the Paris Agreement risks the economy even as it harms the planet’ Wired (online), 31 May 2017 <;.

[4] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Paris Agreement – Status of Ratification (4 August 2017) <>.

[5] Climate Analytics, Paris Agreement Ratification Tracker (4 August 2017) <>.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Conference of the Parties, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Report of the Conference of the Parties on Its Twenty-First Sessions, Held in Paris from 30 November to 13 December 2015 – Addendum – Part Two: Action Taken by the Conference of the Parties at Its Twenty-First Session, Dec 1/CP.21, UN Doc FCCC/CP/2015/10/Add.1 (29 January 2015) Annex (‘Paris Agreement’), art 28.

[8] Paris Agreement, art 4.

[9] See, for example,Stockton, above n 3.

[10] Danel Boffey, ‘Mayors of 7,400 cities vow to meet Obama’s climate commitments’, The Guardian (online), 28 June 2017 <>.

[11] Leanna Garfield and Skye Gould, ‘This map shows which states are vowing to defy Trump and uphold the US’ Paris Agreement goals’, Business Insider Australia (online), 10 June 2017 <>.

[12] Geoffrey Smith, ‘Germany and China Position Themselves as World Climate Leaders’, Fortune (online), 1 June 2017 <>.


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