Paris Climate Agreement Updates: Progress and a Problem for U.S. Policy & the Future of the Agreement

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Progress
On April 22, 2016, Earth Day, at the Signing Ceremony at the United Nations Headquarters, the Paris Climate Agreement was signed by 175 countries-- more countries signed on the first day the agreement was open for signatures than had for any previous international agreement. This marks the first step toward ensuring that the Agreement enters into legal force as quickly as possible.  The agreement becomes operational when it is approved or ratified by 55 countries representing 55% of global greenhouse emissions.

 Secretary of State, John Kerry signed the Agreement on behalf of the United States, the second largest pollution emitter, which has committed to cutting emissions by 32% of its 2005 levels by 2030 and has reaffirmed its intention to approve the deal this year.

Problem
The ultimate aim of the Paris Climate Agreement is to limit the rise in global mean temperature to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) by 2020 which aim is to be achieved by “nationally determined contributions”. The problem that faces the United States meeting its current stated commitments under the Agreement is the legal challenge that has been brought against President Obama’s Clean Power Plan.  President Obama’s plan gives authority to the Environmental Protection Agency to pass regulations to cut carbon pollution at existing power plants in order to meet the U.S. commitment un the Agreement of cutting emissions 32% of its 2005 levels by 2030. Twenty-nine states objected to this authority being given to the EPA and asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the plan.  The Court did so by issuing 5 orders in a 5-4 vote on February 9, 2016.  The plan is now under review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit which has put the case on an expedited schedule, with a hearing set for June 2.  The court may not finish its ruling until this fall, however, and then either side may try to move the case on to the Supreme Court. The new orders will delay all parts of the plan until after the D.C. Circuit completes its review and the Supreme Court has finished, if the case does wind up there. 

It is unlikely that the court decisions will be made final before President Obama leaves office.  This will leave the policy in the hands of his currently unknown successor in office who may or may not support the aims of the Paris Climate Agreement and President Obama’s policies in support of these aims. 

This delay in U.S. implementation of its “nationally determined contribution” may cause other countries to also delay the approval and/or implementation of their plans to cut pollution and consequently cause  the Agreement either to not go into effect all because 55 countries representing 55% of global greenhouse emissions did not approve or ratify the Agreement, or to not reach the stated overarching  goal of the Agreement of limiting the rise in global mean temperature to 3.6 degree Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius).

The upcoming D.C. Circuit Court case in June and the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in November may be key events in determining the future of the Paris Climate Agreement.

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Sarah Cox
Foreign, International, and Comparative Law Librarian,UConn Law

Sarah Cox is the foreign, international and comparative law subject specialist in the Law Library.  She is the primary library liaison for the LL.Ms in the U.S. Legal Studies program, for the members of Connecticut Journal of International Law and the other J.D.s who take foreign and international law courses, as well as carrying out regular reference department duties.  Sarah received her J.D. from UCONN Law, her Masters in Library and Information Studies and a Certificate in Bibliography from the University of California, Berkeley, and holds a B.A. and M.A. in European History.