Paris Is a Binding Agreement: Here’s Why that Matters | Just Security

A growing chorus of U.S. business leaders, state and local government officials, civil society groups, and foreign partners have condemned the President’s announcement that, effective Thursday, June 1, “the United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris Accord.”  As former National Security Adviser Susan Rice put it, pulling the United States out of the Paris Agreement is a self-inflicted “coup de grâce for America’s postwar global leadership for the foreseeable future.”

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Over at foreignpolicy.com, a group of former Obama Administration officials present a forceful and compelling exposition of “Why Abandoning Paris is a Disaster for America.”  They spell out why abiding by our Paris commitments would be far better not only for climate outcomes, but also for our national security, the future of our economy, and for U.S. standing in an increasingly unstable world.  A key point noted by many observers is that within the framework of the Paris Agreement, the President has the ability to adjust downward our nationally determined contribution (NDC) to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, although doing so would be short-sighted at best, because states are not legally bound to hit any particular emissions targets.  If the targets themselves are essentially voluntary, the notion advanced by the President that the United States must completely withdraw from the Agreement in order to unburden ourselves from its supposed economic costs is false.

The non-binding nature of the emissions targets is a central and purposeful feature of the Paris Agreement.  As the U.S. chief negotiator Todd Stern explains, allowing parties to set their own emissions targets was intended to encourage broad participation among states and incentivize maximum ambition.  At the same time, this approach is flexible enough to create a durable framework that will allow further reductions in emissions over time.

While the non-binding nature of these key commitments is worthy of commentators’ focus, there is another essential feature of the Agreement that is important to focus on as well: its provisions that create binding legal obligations for the parties.  These provisions, which are largely procedural in nature, are important to the goals of the Agreement as a whole.  In addition, because they govern the mechanics and timeline of withdrawal, they are important to understand with respect to the debate that will likely rage over the next four years about the future of U.S. participation in the Agreement.

I write to provide a very brief overview of the law of international agreements to explain that the Paris Agreement is a binding agreement under international law, despite containing key non-binding elements, and to offer some reasons why that matters.  In short, the Paris Agreement’s non-binding and binding provisions are vital to its overall structure, and walking away from either type of commitment, whether or not doing so would put the United States in breach of specific treaty law obligations, is disastrous for achieving our strategic aims as well as for U.S. leadership and credibility.  I also explain why giving away our seat at the table for free—while key implementation rules are still being negotiated and before any eventual withdrawal could legally take effect—does not free us but rather ties our hands as a nation.  And contrary to Donald Trump’s assertions that he will be able to seek a better deal, the United States cannot unilaterally request renegotiation of an agreement signed by 195 states.  Dealing ourselves out does not position us to do better, it strikes a huge blow to our ability to negotiate at all in this most important international arena on climate change, because we will no longer be at the table.

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