What is the Paris agreement? A breakdown on its importance

What is the Paris Agreement? In a nutshell, it is the most ambitious global climate agreement the world has ever seen. Implementing it successfully will be crucial to avoid the worst effects of climate change. But implementing it is proving to be extremely challenging.  

United Nations and country representatives celebrate the approval of the Paris Agreement at the COP21 in 2015. Credit: Flickr

The world is heating up. We can stick our heads in the sand as much as we want (and many people are doing that), but this is happening, and it’s because of us.

A mountain of studies and reports have shown that man-made greenhouse gases are the cause for the current heating trends. Without massive changes and reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions, we are set for catastrophic climate change, which will affect not only the environment, but also our economy and even our very livelihoods. We are already seeing these devastating effects all around the world, and things will only get worse if we don’t act.

With this in mind, a group of 195 countries (essentially all the countries on Earth) adopted the agreement in 2015 at the COP21 United Nations climate change conference. It is the first-ever universal, (sort of) binding global climate deal, which sets out a global action plan to put the world on track for avoiding the worst effects of global warming.

In order to do that, countries agreed under the Paris Agreement to keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, while aiming at 1.5º if possible. This means global emissions will have to reach a peak as soon as possible.

But things aren’t exactly clear and simple.

What’s inside the agreement?

Under the agreement, every country has an individual plan (called “Nationally Determined Contributions”, or NDC) to tackle its greenhouse gas emissions. The tricky part is that the agreement gave each country the flexibility to tailor its climate action plan to its own unique circumstances.

This makes a lot of sense. Take country like Brazil, for instance. It hosts much of the Amazon forest, which is a key part in reducing climate change. Deforestation needs to stop, and reforestation needs to happen — that’s very important for Brazil. Meanwhile, a country such as the Netherlands (much smaller and economically developed) should work to reduce the emissions of its activities and produce more renewable energy. Simply put, every country has its own unique economic and environmental situation, and the NDCs take that into account, providing custom solutions.

All countries have agreed to the Paris Agreement (more on the US declared withdrawal later on). The involvement of all countries means that both developed and developing ones are committed to working in climate action.

However, the Paris Agreement is exactly not legally binding. Strictly speaking, it is a hybrid between some legally binding provisions and (most) other provisions which are only politically encouraged. There are no clear consequences or penalties for countries that fall short of their pledged goals. Parties are, however, legally bound to have their progress tracked by technical expert review to assess achievement toward the NDC and to determine ways to strengthen ambition.

This fact has been considered a major drawback of the agreement. Having a pact, even one that involves all the countries on Earth, isn’t worth all that much when you don’t include the rules and mechanisms to guide progress and hold countries accountable. It’s easy to declare that you care about sustainability and want to shift to renewables (almost everyone is doing it nowadays), but without accountability, the results remain questionable. Without these strong rules and clear mechanisms, there’s the risk of all the critical commitments and goals becoming mostly big words on paper.

As well as seeking to limit global warming, the agreement also included goals in a number of other important areas like climate finance to help developing nations and transparency to ensure countries are living up to their promises.

The pact also includes a number of different frameworks to facilitate a technological transfer from developed countries to developing countries, and numerous projects to accelerate the transition to renewables.

Why is the Paris Agreement necessary?

It’s rare to have a consensus among nearly all nations on a single topic. But the Paris Agreement was an exception, because this is a problem that affects everyone on Earth. Leaders from around the world collectively acknowledged that climate change is driven by human behavior, that it’s a threat to the environment and all of humanity, and that global action is needed to stop it — though some did it with more ethos than others.

Taking action as quickly as possible is also vital. Climate change is the type of problem where a delay is especially costly. It is not like other pollution such as dirty urban air or a putrid stream — greenhouse gases hang around for decades to centuries, and the problem only gets worse. So, if societies delay revising our current practices the total amount in the atmosphere will grow.

Already, scientific information is showing that we have delayed action for too much and we are paying the price — delaying it even more would be downright catastrophic.

The general scientific view is that any rise in global temperatures of more than 2ºC would be an unacceptable risk — potentially resulting in mass extinctions, more severe droughts and hurricanes, and a watery Arctic. It would trigger abrupt and irreversible changes in the earth’s systems.

To avoid major changes to life as we know it, global action must be taken. Hence, the Paris Agreement, which sets the ultimate goal of capping global warming rise this century to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Indeed, the seemingly small difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees could have a dramatic impact on low-lying nations and coral reefs.

However, there are valid concerns that the Paris Agreement is just not ambitious enough. The 2 degree figure seems somewhat arbitrary and is not truly backed by actual science — but everyone can agree that it’s a starting point that’s better than nothing.

What about money?

Money has been a sticking point throughout the negotiations, as it is so often the case, Developing countries say they need financial and technological help to leapfrog fossil fuels and move straight to renewables.

Meanwhile, developed countries generally became developed by burning fossil fuels, so they have an environmental debt to cover up. Of course, when trying to bring different interests to the table, the solutions are never easy — this is why the Paris Agreement was had such landmark importance, because although imperfect, it managed to bring everyone to the table and get them involved, one way or another.

This is not a new deal. In 2009, developed countries pledged to mobilize jointly $100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020 for developing countries. The agreement requires rich nations to maintain a $100 billion a year funding pledge beyond 2020, and to use that figure as a “floor” for further support agreed by 2025 — encouraging even more ambitious investments.

The deal says wealthy countries should continue to provide financial support for poor nations to cope with climate change and encourages other countries to join in on a voluntary basis. However, this has not been reached yet.

While climate change has slowly been on the rise, the $100 billion a year was, unfortunately, never taken seriously by developed nations. Recently, a meeting attempting to address this issue was “blocked across the board” by a group of rich nations led by the United States.

So what happened since then?

The agreement went into effect on November 4, 2016 — 30 days after at least 55 countries representing at least 55% of the world’s global emissions ratified it on October 5, 2016.

The agreement went into effect on November 4, 2016 — 30 days after at least 55 countries representing at least 55% of the world’s global emissions ratified it on October 5, 2016.

Of the 196 negotiating countries that signed the agreement, 185 parties and the European Union, representing more than 88% of the global emissions, have ratified it as of today.

Virtually every country on the planet has, at least statement-wise, expressed their support of the Paris Agreement, with one exception: the United States of America.

Under the administration of President Donald Trump, the United States expressed its willingness to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Contrary to what Trump and his administration claims, this hasn’t been formalized yet and when it happens it will take up to four years for the decision to be processed. This is an important aspect, but given the fact that the Agreement isn’t legally binding, if the administration doesn’t want to follow the Paris guidelines, they just won’t.

But it’s not that simple. Hundreds of cities, regions, and corporations in the US have vowed to follow the Paris Agreement regardless of what the administration wants. At a social level, Americans are also increasingly alarmed by climate change and demand action from politicians. Even so, many high-ranking US politicians are sponsored or lobbied by fossil fuel companies, and it is showing. A new report has found that US carbon dioxide emissions rose by 3.4% in 2018 after three years of decline.

The rest of the world is also falling short on their progress. Chinese authorities announced that they were making great strides in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, while Chinese emissions are growing slower than expected, they are still growing, and China is still the number 1 polluter in the world.

In contrast, European Union officials announced in 2018 that all member states had fallen behind on reaching their targets. The EU emissions seem to have peaked, but they should be declining at a rate that’s just not happening.

Few if any countries are achieving their climate goals. As a whole, the world is definitely not achieving the targets set in the Paris Agreement — and keep in mind, some have criticized the agreement as being not ambitious enough.

So, is the Paris Agreement enough to deal with the climate emergency?

No, and that’s the problem. As each country was able to make its own climate pledge, the level of ambition is far below what’s necessary to avoid the worst consequences of global warming.

With the current commitments, the temperature would increase between 3º and 4ºC instead of the required 2ºC under the Paris Agreement, according to the most recent analysis. That means countries need to step up their game — and they need to do it fast.

The United Nations is holding a climate summit in New York in September and is asking countries to present there much more ambitious climate pledges. The aim of the UN is for countries to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

Following COP21, countries held three meetings in 2016, 2017 and 2018 to work on the rules and mechanisms of the Paris Agreement. This hasn’t yet been completed and is supposed to be done this year at COP25 in Chile, one of the big climate gatherings of the year.

Should we panic?

The world should definitely feel a sense of urgency, but we shouldn’t panic. The collective sum of our decisions is what brought climate heating in the first place, and the collective sum of our decisions can be what limits it.

Make no mistake — temperatures will continue to rise. We are already seeing this, and we can expect more of this to come. But taking action to reduce and mitigate these impacts can be extremely impactful. It’s up to each of us to bring this forth, by making sustainable changes in our lives, supporting companies which truly value sustainability, and voting for politicians which actually want to tackle the climate emergency.

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