“Paris was designed to be less brittle than Kyoto, so that it could bend without breaking,” says David G. Victor, professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego, who had long argued for a Paris-like agreement. “Whether the Trump administration decides to leave or not will be a big test of that approach.”
Under the Paris deal, every country submitted a voluntary pledge for how it planned to address climate change, with no penalties for failing to meet those goals. Todd D. Stern, the lead climate negotiator in the Obama administration, said that the voluntary nature of the pledges was intentional. Unlike with Kyoto, nations would not have to submit to emission cuts dictated from above by United Nations negotiators. They could submit plans tailored to their domestic circumstances and would not have to fear being stuck with them if circumstances changed, as happened to Japan in 2011 after a reactor meltdown at Fukushima forced the closing of the country’s nuclear fleet.
As part of that deal, the Obama administration pledged to cut domestic greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 as well as commit up to $3 billion in aid for poorer countries by 2020. China vowed that its emissions would peak around 2030 and that it would get about 20 percent of its electricity from carbon-free sources by then. India would continue to reduce its carbon intensity, or CO2 output per unit of economic activity, in line with historic levels.
Countries would then meet regularly to assess their progress and increase their ambitions as feasible. While the current pledges would not keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius, the agreed-upon goal, there is some evidence that this “soft diplomacy” is nudging countries toward greater action. A recent study from the Grantham Research Institute found that the mere existence of Paris had prodded dozens of countries to enact new clean-energy laws.
With the Trump administration aiming to dismantle a variety of Obama-era climate policies, including the Clean Power Plan, it is unlikely that the United States will be able to meet its earlier goal. Opponents of the Paris deal, including the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, have warned that the United States could be on the hook for Mr. Obama’s pledge. But legal experts and architects of the treaty say this is not how Paris was designed.
There is no legal obstacle to simply staying in the treaty and submitting a weaker pledge, and even reneging on aid goals.
« We dealt with this specific question when designing the deal,” Mr. Stern said. “We didn’t want a situation where if something came up and a country couldn’t meet its target, they’d have no choice but to leave.”
The Paris deal does still impose a few smaller legal requirements on countries for reporting their progress and submitting fresh plans over time. But, Mr. Stern said, the administration has ample reason to stay in the talks and shape future rules that govern those requirements.
During both the Bush and Obama administrations, for instance, the United States pushed for all countries to adhere to a single set of transparency rules for reporting emissions, while China has long argued for a weaker set for developing countries. If the United States were to leave, it would lose its ability to shape these discussions.
“If you’re interested in pushing China to do more,” Mr. Stern said, “then the best way to do that is to have us at the table.”