New Congressional Research Service report: Climate Change: Frequently Asked Questions About the 2015 Paris Agreement

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The Paris Agreement (PA) to address climate change internationally entered into force on November 4, 2016. The United States is one of 149 Parties to the treaty; President Barack Obama accepted the agreement rather than ratifying it with the advice and consent of the Senate. On June 1, 2017, President Donald J. Trump announced his intent to withdraw the United States from the agreement and that his Administration would seek to reopen negotiations on the PA or on a new “transaction.” Following the provisions of the PA, U.S. withdrawal could take effect as early as
November 2020.

Experts broadly agree that stabilizing greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere to avoid dangerous GHG-induced climate change would require concerted efforts by all large emitting nations. The United States is the second largest emitter of GHG globally after China.

Toward this purpose, the PA outlines goals and a structure for   international cooperation to slow climate change and mitigate its impacts over decades to come.

The PA is subsidiary to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which the United States ratified in 1992 with the advice and consent of the Senate and which entered into force in 1994. The PA requires that nations submit pledges to abate their GHG emissions, set goals to adapt to climate change, and cooperate toward these ends, including mobilization of financial and other support. The negotiators intended the PA to be legally binding on its Parties, though not all provisions in it are mandatory. Some are recommendations or collective commitments to which it would be difficult to hold an individual Party accountable.

Key aspects of the agreement include:

  • Temperature goal. The PA defines a collective, long-term objective to hold the GHG-induced increase in temperature to well below 2o Celsius (C) and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5oC above the pre-industrial level. A periodic “global stocktake” will assess progress toward the goals.
  • Single GHG mitigation framework. The PA establishes a process, with a
    ratchet mechanism in five-year increments, for all countries to set and achieve GHG emission mitigation pledges until the long-term goal is met. For the first time under the UNFCCC, all Parties participate in a common framework with common guidance, though some Parties are allowed flexibility in line with their capacities. This largely supersedes the bifurcated mitigation obligations of developed and developing countries that held the negotiations in often adversarial stasis for many years.
  • Accountability framework. To promote compliance, the PA balances
    accountability to build and maintain trust (if not certainty) with the potential for public and international pressure (“name-and-shame”). Also, the PA establishes a compliance mechanism that will be expert-based and facilitative rather than punitive. Many Parties and observers will closely monitor the effectiveness of this strategy.
  • Adaptation. The PA also requires “as appropriate” that Parties prepare and
    communicate their plans to adapt to climate change. Adaptation communications will be recorded in a public registry.
  • Collective financial obligation. The PA reiterates the collective obligation in the UNFCCC for developed country Parties to provide financial resources—public and private—to assist developing country Parties with mitigation and adaptation efforts. It urges scaling up of financing. The Parties agreed to set, prior to their 2025 meeting, a new collective quantified goal for mobilizing financial resources of not less than $100 billion annually to assist developing country Parties.

Obama Administration officials stated that the PA is not a treaty requiring Senate advice and consent to ratification. President Obama signed an instrument of acceptance on behalf of the United States on August 29, 2016, without submitting it to Congress. In 2015, Members of the 114th Congress introduced several resolutions (e.g., S.Res. 329, S.Res. 290, H.Res. 544, S.Con.Res. 25) to express the sense that the PA should be submitted for the advice and consent of the Senate. Additionally, resolutions were introduced in the House (H.Con.Res. 97, H.Con.Res. 105,H.Res. 218) to oppose the PA or set conditions on its signature or ratification by the United States. None received further action. In the 115th Congress, a number of resolutions have also been introduced to oppose or support U.S. participation in the PA (e.g., H.Con.Res. 55, H.Res. 85,
H.Res. 390, S.Con.Res. 17).

Beyond the Senate’s role in giving advice and consent to a treaty, Congress continues to exercise its powers through authorizations and appropriations for related federal actions. Additionally, numerous issues may attract congressional oversight, such as:

  • procedures for withdrawal;
  • foreign policy, technological, and economic implications of withdrawal;
  • possible objectives and provisions of renegotiation of the PA or of a new
    “transaction” for cooperation internationally;
  • international rules and guidance to carry out the PA;
  • financial contributions and uses of finances mobilize

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