The US Supreme Court and the Future of the Paris Climate Change Agreement

On February 9, 2016, the US Supreme Court, in an extraordinary interim decision, stayed the the Clean Power Plan that had been announced by President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in August 2015. The 5-4 decision halts the implementation of the Plan pending judicial review in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. It was handed down after the D.C. Circuit had denied a similar request.

The Plan is designed to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil-fuel-fired power plants, by establishing a process under which the EPA would work with the US states toward achieving reductions over the coming decades. The stay will freeze this process anticipated process of adjustments most likely until the Court decides on the legality of the Plan in June of 2017.

The Plan is a key component in the bottom-up strategy of the Obama Administration to secure a globally coordinated effort to respond to climate change. The stay could therefore shatter the foundations of the Paris Agreement that are built on unilateral undertakings of states, and takes inspiration from the unilateral commitments of the major polluters like the US.

In other words, a matter of pressing global concern is overshadowed by an internal legal debate about the scope of presidential authority vis-à-vis the states. The sovereignty claims of the 26 states that have requested the stay – if ultimately endorsed by the court – are likely to undercut the current global effort to combat climate change.