Is the United States Really Leaving the Paris Climate Agreement?

Yes, but the process takes a long time. Final withdrawal will occur one day after the 2020 election—but Washington may still be able to get back in.

By Keith Johnson, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Activists march through Los Angeles during a climate change rally on Nov. 1.
Activists march through Los Angeles during a climate change rally on Nov. 1. Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump has formally announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, which will leave America as the only country on Earth outside the accord, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep temperatures from rising to dangerous levels. Formal notice of the U.S. withdrawal comes just as global emissions keep rising, climate ambitions keep falling short, and climate scientists warn of increasingly dire consequences including drought, extreme weather, and rising sea levels.

Didn’t the United States already withdraw from the Paris agreement?

Not quite: The Trump administration announced that it planned to withdraw in its first year in office, but a country can’t formally even begin to withdraw until three years after the agreement went into force. For the United States, that was Nov. 4, 2019. Even so, the United States isn’t quite out yet. It takes exactly one more year for the withdrawal notice to become official, meaning that the United States will formally pull out of the Paris agreement one day after the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Can the United States rejoin at a later date, perhaps after the 2020 election?

Any signatory that withdraws from the pact can apply for readmission to the United Nations and can be back in within 30 days.

So what are the practical consequences of Trump’s decision to withdraw?

In one way, the Trump administration’s decision is huge: The United States is the world’s second-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind only China, and is by far the largest cumulative greenhouse gas emitter in history. With the United States outside the Paris agreement, the pact will now cover only about 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, down from 97 percent previously. That’s bad news now that global emissions are at record levels and rising fast, after several years of apparent success in stabilizing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere. With the United States abdicating any responsibility for curbing emissions, it will be that much tougher to convince China, India, and other growing sources of greenhouse gases that they have to do more.

U.S. isolation could have other second-order effects. U.S. firms may be at a competitive disadvantage in the future, if the European Union dusts off nascent plans for some sort of carbon border tax, which would slap tariffs on all goods coming from countries that don’t tackle climate change. And being outside the Paris agreement could end up making it harder to secure a new trade pact with the EU; France opposes doing a trade deal with any country outside the agreement.

At the same time, formal membership or not in the Paris agreement matters less in practical terms than concrete steps taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and there all Paris countries are falling short. The United Nations found recently that all the voluntary pledges that make up the Paris agreement will still fall well short of meeting the pact’s goal of limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (and that was when the United States was still formally part of the agreement). Unless all the signatories to the Paris agreement ramp up their ambition and take steps to cut emissions a lot faster, even the goal of limiting the temperature increase to 2 degrees may be out of reach, the U.N. found.

But weren’t U.S. emissions falling regardless?

The Trump administration in the past could point to slightly lower emissions as a sign that it was making environmental progress despite seeking to dismantle nearly every Obama administration program designed to fight climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions in the United States fell slightly during Trump’s first year in office—largely because cheap natural gas pushed dirty coal out of a lot of power plants. But that trend went into reverse in 2018, with a growing economy and rising demand for energy translating into a jump in greenhouse gas emissions. This year, as the economy slows and the outlook for heavily polluting coal grows even dimmer, greenhouse gas emissions could fall once again—despite, not because of, the Trump administration’s policies.

What’s the point of the U.S. withdrawal from an agreement that included only voluntary pledges in the first place?

Pulling out of the Paris agreement scratches an itch among some sectors of Trump’s base: While a strong majority of Americans overall want the government to do more to tackle climate change, that’s not as true among Republicans. Even as concern about climate change has reached near-record levels overall, almost half of Republicans say they are not at all concerned, and only a fraction take the issue seriously, Gallup found.

Other conservatives view international accords like the Paris agreement as somehow eroding U.S. sovereignty and cheered Trump’s withdrawal from the voluntary program. Still others, especially Republican lawmakers, argue that cutting dangerous emissions would be too expensive and would act as a brake on U.S. economic growth, even though climate change itself risks costing the United States 10 percent of its GDP by the end of the century.

Finally, there’s simple political payback: Some of Trump’s biggest donors and backers, like the coal baron Robert Murray, argued for pulling out of the Paris agreement as a way to help their beleaguered industries; Trump’s announcement came too late for Murray, whose coal company declared bankruptcy last week.

What about U.S. regions, states, and cities? Can’t they go it alone whatever Trump does?

Yes, and they are. Since Trump took office, the number of cities and states charting their own independent climate policy has skyrocketed; three more states, including fossil fuel-heavy Pennsylvania, just announced plans to join a regional initiative to curb emissions from power plants. Together, those so-called subfederal climate efforts include about two-thirds of the U.S. population and GDP, blunting much of the Trump administration’s effort to hamstring the fight against climate change, the World Resources Institute notes. But without harmony between cities, states, and the federal government, those piecemeal efforts will be less effective at stimulating large-scale investment in clean energy and nationwide retirement of dirty fuels, making it that much harder—and take that much longer—to make the kind of deep emissions cuts the U.N. now says are necessary to avoid the worst harms of climate change.

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP