Revolving door: The Paris Agreement problem

11th December 2020

Should countries be able to leave the Paris Agreement? Bogdan Popescu weighs in

US president-elect Joe Biden has vowed to re-join the Paris Agreement from the very beginning of his presidency. This is great news for the viability and sustainability of our planet – if the US is aligned with the rest of the world, we will have a united front that is committed to qualitative and quantitative targets.

The US's Paris Agreement return is probably the best news in the environmental sphere since president Donald Trump decided to withdraw the country from it. And this is exactly where the problem is: one president quits, another joins. The Agreement should not be a 'hop on, hop off' forum – an elite social club that you join and quit whenever you wish.

A dangerous precedent

Continuity is essential. Once you have stopped something , it takes time to restart – and time is something we don't have any more. We are facing a binary reality: stick to a sustainable path and we may have a chance to mend things; otherwise we will dive into a gloomy unknown.

The US has set two precedents by leaving and then rejoining the Paris Agreement. What if others do the same? The Paris Agreement might even become a topic in national elections. Can we leave it in the hands of demagogues and climate sceptics? Should we set up a 'Paris Agreement Bureau of Admissions and Departures' to streamline the process?

Or should we take a different and more radical approach? The fight against climate change is not a Sunday afternoon activity. We are bound together, whether we like it or not. Those who don't like it must accept that their mood cannot shape the future of the world, because the future they would shape is no future at all.

Entering the Paris Agreement should be a one-way trip. Once a country joins, withdrawal should not be an option. We are in a situation where one country's actions can jeopardise everybody. The political and economic selfishness that has brought us to where we are today can only derail us from the fragile Paris Agreement path. We must recognise that an irreversible situation commands irreversible choice – and enforce it.

Fostering compromise

Is this feasible, or just wishful thinking? Who is ready to stand up in front of the most powerful nations and twist their arm?

Compromise is the way forward, and the international community has, in the past, shown its ability to foster compromises. From a philosophical and political perspective, there is hope.

Article 28 of the Paris Agreement states:

  1. At any time after three years from the date on which this Agreement has entered into force for a Party, that Party may withdraw from this Agreement by giving written notification to the Depositary.
  2. Any such withdrawal shall take effect upon expiry of one year from the date of receipt by the Depositary of the notification of withdrawal, or on such later date as may be specified in the notification of withdrawal.

The one-year period is more in line with commercial contracts and is technically already too short for such an endeavour. It would be sensible to extend the current period to four years, the average term of office in most countries. This would be a good compromise, neutralising the risks of populists taking up the Paris Agreement issue to serve their own short-term targets. It would either overlap or match a full term in office, removing any political benefit from playing with this theme.

An extraordinary session of the UN Conference of the Parties would probably be the best and swiftest way to implement such a fundamental change, as specified in Article 16 (16.5, 16.6 and 16.7). All in all, it would be a good demonstration of how four years equates to irreversibility in both international politics and sustainability. This would be to the benefit of everyone, and without downside.

Bogdan Popescu is founder of digital business card company BeCard.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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