What is the Paris Agreement?
The Paris Agreement is a landmark in the climate change process because. For the first time, a binding agreement brings all nations into a common cause. Implementation of the Paris Agreement requires economic and social transformation, based on the best available science.
For almost three decades, world governments have been meeting every year to forge a global response to the climate emergency. Under the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), every country on earth is treaty-bound to “avoid dangerous climate change”. To achieve this they are also bound to find ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally in an equitable way.
On 12 December 2015, 195 countries agreed to a new universal, legally binding climate agreement in Paris. The 32-page document establishes a framework for global climate action. It includes the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change, support for developing nations, and the transparent reporting and strengthening of climate goals.
The agreement stated that it would enter into force and become fully effective if a minimum of 55 countries that produce at least 55% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (according to a list produced in 2015) ratified, accepted, approved or acceded to the agreement.
Success relies on the largest emitters joining the agreement
In April 2016, the United States and China, which together represent almost 40% of global emissions, issued a joint statement confirming that both countries would sign the Paris Climate Agreement. 175 Parties (174 states and the European Union) signed the agreement on the first date it was open for signature on 22 April 2016 (Earth Day) at a ceremony in New York. On the same day, more than 20 countries issued a statement of their intent to join as soon as possible with a view to joining in 2016. With ratification by the European Union, the Agreement obtained enough parties to enter into effect as of 4 November 2016.
What are the characteristics of the agreement?
The deal is divided into the ‘agreement’, which came into force in 2020, and a set of supporting ‘decisions’. It sets out how countries should reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, adapt to climate change and more over the course of the century.
The Preamble: sets out a number of principles and ideas that underpin the Paris agreement.
- Recognizing the need for an effective and using the basis of the best available scientific knowledge
- Recognizing the specific needs and special circumstances of developing countries. This is especially important for those that are most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, as provided for in the Convention
- Taking full account of the specific needs and special situations of the least developed countries with regard to funding and transfer of technology
- Recognizing that Parties may be affected not only by climate change, but also by the impacts of the measures taken in response to it
- Emphasizing the intrinsic relationship that climate change actions, responses and impacts have with equitable access to sustainable development and eradication of poverty
- Recognizing the fundamental priority of safeguarding food security and ending hunger, and the particular vulnerabilities of food production systems to the adverse impacts of climate change
- Taking into account the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities
- Acknowledging that climate change is a common concern of humankind. Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations. These include human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development. Gender equality, empowerment of women and inter-generational equity is also included.
- Recognizing the importance of the conservation and enhancement, as appropriate, of sinks and reservoirs of the greenhouse gases referred to in the Convention
- Noting the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including oceans, and the protection of biodiversity, recognized by some cultures as Mother Earth, and noting the importance for some of the concept of “climate Justice”, when taking action to address climate change
- Affirming the importance of education, training, public awareness, public participation, public access to information and cooperation at all levels on the matters addressed in this Agreement
- Recognizing the importance of the engagements of all levels of government, in accordance with respective national legislations of Parties, in addressing climate change
- Recognizing that sustainable lifestyles and sustainable patterns of consumption and production, with developed country Parties taking the lead, play an important role in addressing climate change
- These include: ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’; recognition of the special circumstances of least developed countries; the impacts of measures taken to combat climate change; sustainable development and the eradication of poverty; the creation of decent work; human rights; and the integrity of ‘Mother Earth’.
The agreement sets out three purposes:
- Holding the increase in global average temperatures to “well below 2C above pre-industrial levels” and to pursue efforts to limit temperature increase to 5C above pre-industrial levels
- Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change
- Making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.
The Paris Agreement’s long-term temperature goal is to keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 °C (3.6 °F) above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 °C (2.7 °F). This would substantially reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.
How will this be achieved?
This should be done by reducing emissions as soon as possible, in order to “achieve a balance between anthropogenic (human induced) emissions by sources, and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases” in the second half of the 21st century. (Carbon sinks are natural systems that suck up and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,such as trees.)
It also aims to increase the ability of parties to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change, and make “finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.”
Under the Paris Agreement, each country must determine, plan, and regularly report on the contribution that it undertakes to mitigate global warming. No mechanism forces a country to set a specific emissions target by a specific date, but each target should go beyond previously set targets.
To achieve this long-term temperature goal, countries aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to achieve a climate neutral world by mid-century.
The Paris Agreement works on a 5 year cycle of increasingly ambitious climate action carried out by countries. By 2020, countries were to submit their plans for climate action known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs).
In their NDCs, countries communicate actions they will take to reduce their Greenhouse Gas emissions in order to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement. Countries also communicate in the NDCs actions they will take to build resilience to adapt to the impacts of rising temperatures.
Article 3 of the agreement requires them to be “ambitious”, “represent a progression over time” and set “with the view to achieving the purpose of this Agreement”. The contributions should be reported every five years and are to be registered by the UNFCCC Secretariat.
Each further ambition should be more ambitious than the previous one, known as the principle of ‘progression’. Countries can cooperate and pool their nationally determined contributions. The Intended Nationally Determined Contributions pledged during the 2015 Climate Change Conference serve, (unless provided otherwise), as the initial Nationally determined contribution.
The Paris Agreement has a ‘bottom up’ structure in contrast to most international environmental law treaties, which are ‘top down’, characterized by standards and targets set internationally, for states to implement.
The level of NDCs set by each country will set that country’s targets. However, the ‘contributions’ themselves are not binding as a matter of international law. There is no mechanism to force a country to set a target in their NDC by a specific date and no enforcement if a set target in an NDC is not met. There will be only a “name and shame” system or as János Pásztor, the U.N. assistant secretary-general on climate change, told CBS News (US), a “name and encourage” plan.
As the agreement provides no consequences if countries do not meet their commitments, consensus of this kind is fragile. A trickle of nations exiting the agreement could trigger the withdrawal of more governments, bringing about a total collapse of the agreement.
Enhanced transparency framework
While each Party’s NDC is not legally binding, the Parties are legally bound to have their progress tracked by technical expert review to assess achievement toward the NDC, and to determine ways to strengthen ambition.
With the Paris Agreement, countries established an enhanced transparency framework (ETF). Under ETF, starting in 2024, countries will report transparently on actions taken and progress in climate change mitigation, adaptation measures and support provided or received. It also provides for international procedures for the review of the submitted reports.
The information gathered through the ETF will feed into the Global stocktake which will assess the collective progress towards the long-term climate goals.
This will lead to recommendations for countries to set more ambitious plans in the next round.
To better frame the efforts towards the long-term goal, the Paris Agreement invited countries to formulate and submit by 2020 long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies (LT-LEDS).
LT-LEDS provide the long-term horizon to the NDCs. Unlike NDCs, they are not mandatory. Nevertheless, they place the NDCs into the context of countries’ long-term planning and development priorities, providing a vision and direction for future development.
How are countries supporting one another?
The Paris Agreement provides a framework for financial, technical and capacity building support to those countries who need it.
The Paris Agreement reaffirms that developed countries should take the lead in providing financial assistance to countries that are less endowed and more vulnerable, while for the first time also encouraging voluntary contributions by other Parties. Climate finance is needed for mitigation, because large-scale investments are required to significantly reduce emissions. Climate finance is equally important for adaptation, as significant financial resources are needed to adapt to the adverse effects and reduce the impacts of a changing climate.
The Paris Agreement speaks of the vision of fully realizing technology development and transfer for both improving resilience to climate change and reducing GHG emissions. It establishes a technology framework to provide overarching guidance to the well-functioning Technology Mechanism. The mechanism is accelerating technology development and transfer through its policy and implementation arms.
The Paris Agreement emphasizes the principle of “Common but Differentiated Responsibility and Respective Capabilities”—the acknowledgement that different nations have different capacities and duties to climate action—it does not provide a specific division between developed and developing nations. It therefore appears that negotiators will have to continue to deal with this issue in future negotiation rounds, even though the discussion on differentiation may take on a new dynamic.
Not all developing countries have sufficient capacities to deal with many of the challenges brought by climate change. As a result, the Paris Agreement places great emphasis on climate-related capacity-building for developing countries and requests all developed countries to enhance support for capacity-building actions in developing countries.
The NDC Partnership was launched at COP22 I 2016, (COP stands for conference of the parties under the UNFCCC) in Marrakesh to enhance cooperation so that countries have access to the technical knowledge and financial support they need to achieve large-scale climate and sustainable development targets.
It is guided by a Steering Committee composed of developed and developing nations and international institutions and facilitated by a Support Unit hosted by the World Resources Institute and based in Washington, DC and Bonn, Germany.
The NDC Partnership is co-chaired by the governments of Costa Rica and the Netherlands and includes 93 member countries, 21 institutional partners and ten associate members.
While the enhanced transparency framework is universal, along with the global stocktaking to occur every 5 years, the framework is meant to provide “built-in flexibility” to distinguish between developed and developing countries’ capacities.
The agreement recognizes the varying circumstances of some countries, and specifically notes that the technical expert review for each country consider that country’s specific capacity for reporting. The agreement also develops a Capacity-Building Initiative for Transparency to assist developing countries in building the necessary institutions and processes for complying with the transparency framework.
The scope, level of detail, or frequency of reporting may all be adjusted and tiered based on a country’s capacity. The requirement for in-country technical reviews could be lifted for some less developed or small island developing countries. Ways to assess capacity include financial and human resources in a country necessary for NDC review.
The process of translating the Paris Agreement into national agendas and implementation has started. One example is the commitment of the least developed countries (LDCs). The LDC Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Initiative for Sustainable Development, known as LDC REEEI, is set to bring sustainable, clean energy to millions of energy-starved people in LDCs, facilitating improved energy access, the creation of jobs and contributing to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
In July 2020 the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) announced that it assessed a 20% chance of global warming compared to pre-industrial levels exceeding 1.5 °C in at least one year between 2020 and 2024, with 1.5 °C being a key threshold under the Paris Agreement.
A pair of studies in Nature have said that, as of 2017, none of the major industrialized nations were implementing the policies they had envisioned and have not met their pledged emission reduction targets, and even if they had, the sum of all member pledges (as of 2016) would not keep global temperature rise “well below 2 °C”.
How well each individual country is on track to achieving its Paris agreement commitments can be continuously followed on-line (through the Climate Change Performance Index, Climate Action Tracker and the Climate Clock).
A 2018 published study points at a threshold at which temperatures could rise to 4 or 5 degrees (ambiguous phrase, continuity would be “4-5 °C”) compared to the pre-industrial levels, through self-reinforcing feedbacks in the climate system, suggesting this threshold is below the 2-degree temperature target, agreed upon by the Paris climate deal. Study author Katherine Richardson stresses, “We note that the Earth has never in its history had a quasi-stable state that is around 2 °C warmer than the pre-industrial and suggest that there is substantial risk that the system, itself, will ‘want’ to continue warming because of all of these other processes – even if we stop emissions. This implies not only reducing emissions but much more.”
At the same time, another 2018 published study notes that even at a 1.5 °C level of warming, important increases in the occurrence of high river flows would be expected in India, South and Southeast Asia. Yet, the same study points out that with 2 °C of warming various areas in South America, central Africa, western Europe, and the Mississippi area in the United States would see more high flows; thus increasing flood risks.
The Katowice package adopted at the UN climate conference (COP24) in December 2018 contains common and detailed rules, procedures and guidelines that operationalise the Paris Agreement.
It covers all key areas including transparency, finance, mitigation and adaptation, and provides flexibility to Parties that need it in light of their capacities, while enabling them to implement and report on their commitments in a transparent, complete, comparable and consistent manner.
It will also enable the Parties to progressively enhance their contributions to tackling climate change, in order to meet the agreement’s long-term goals.
What have we achieved so far?
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), if only the current climate commitments of the Paris Agreement are relied upon, temperatures will likely have risen by 3.2 °C by the end of the 21st century. To limit global temperature rise to 1.5 °C, the global annual emission reduction needed is 7.6% emissions reduction every year between 2020 and 2030. The top four emitters (China, USA, EU27 and India) contributed to over 55% of the total emissions over the last decade, excluding emissions from land-use change such as deforestation. China’s emissions grew 1.6% in 2018 to reach a high of 13.7 Gt of CO2 equivalent. The US emits 13% of global emissions and emissions rose 2.5% in 2018. The EU emits 8.5% of global emissions has declined 1% per year across the last decade. Emissions declined 1.3% in 2018. India’s 7% of global emissions grew 5.5% in 2018 but its emissions per capita is one of the lowest within the G20
There is hope that climate change can be halted
Although climate change action needs to be massively increased to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, the years since its entry into force have already sparked low-carbon solutions and new markets.
More and more countries, regions, cities and companies are establishing carbon neutrality targets. Zero-carbon solutions are becoming competitive across economic sectors representing 25% of emissions. This trend is most noticeable in the power and transport sectors and has created many new business opportunities for early movers.
By 2030, zero-carbon solutions could be competitive in sectors representing over 70% of global emissions.