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Is the Paris Agreement Legally Binding?

Since President Donald Trump formally began to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement in 2019, the question of whether the agreement is legally binding has been up for debate.

Like the Washington Examiner, dozens of commentators throughout the United States have claimed that since “there are no enforcement mechanisms under the deal through the United Nations”, the agreement is not legally binding to the U.S. or any other country. And while there may be some truth to their claims, some portions of the agreement are, in fact, legally binding. 

What Is the Paris Agreement? 

The Paris Climate Change Agreement is a global agreement that sets out a framework for countries to limit global temperature rises to below 2℃ over preindustrial levels. Approximately 196 members signed the agreement, and participants include some of the world’s biggest contributors to climate change. Under the agreement, countries set their own emissions targets and agreed to make changes at home to significantly reduce pollutants that cause global warming. Participants submitted national climate action plans that reflect the country’s goals for emissions reductions. 

Why Are Some Parts of the Agreement Legally Binding? 

Although non-binding features of the agreement do exist, like the voluntary emissions targets, there are provisions within the document that create binding legal obligations for members. Largely procedural in nature, some of these provisions govern the timeline and procedures for withdrawal from the agreement. In Article 28 of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, operative provisions state:

  • Parties may withdraw from the Paris Agreement by serving written notice to the Depositary no sooner than three years from the date the agreement was placed in force for that member. 
  • Withdrawals are to take effect one year from the date written notice to withdraw is received by the Depositary unless a later date is specified in the notification. 

Additionally, there are many binding provisions that discuss transparency, accountability, and reporting. These provisions help incentivize participants to create ambitious goals and work towards them.

While the emissions targets are voluntary, participants are required to submit publically recorded Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and they must track progress by recording various types of information on a regular basis. These provisions are legally binding.

Additionally, certain verbiage in contracts signals whether a provision is non-binding or whether there exists a binding obligation. Throughout the Paris deal, language is used to indicate that there is a legally binding obligation. For instance, the modal verb “shall” is found within the document 117 times. Historically, drafters and negotiators have paid close attention to such language. 

Despite the Trump Administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, it is the responsibility of the people of the United States to carry out its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), hinder global warming, and decelerate dangerous climate change. An advocate for the people of Chicago and the surrounding communities, Illinois injury attorney Gerald F. Connor maintains his commitment to protecting the rights and the prosperity of people in the local community and throughout the state. 

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