Paris Climate Agreement Explained: What's in it and where is it taking us?

Countries finalized an historic new international climate change agreement that will include new climate commitments from all major countries and set in motion efforts to require deeper emissions reduction commitments from all countries over time. The agreement contains provisions to hold countries accountable to their commitments and mobilize greater investments to assist developing countries in building low-carbon, climate-resilient economies. World leaders have built an agreement that mobilizes action now and spurs even greater action in the years to come.

Photo by Shun Kambe

As I said in our final comments:

"The world is united, as never before, to address the climate threat facing us all. This landmark Paris agreement puts us on the pathway to a low-carbon future and accelerates a transition to clean energy that will protect our health as it drives our economies forward. And it sends a vital signal to our children: We won't leave you a world plagued with devastating storms, raging wildfires, deadly floods and punishing drought.

Leaders around the world now recognize that it is in their own interest to cut their carbon pollution. Far from destroying their economies, domestic climate action produces real benefits for their citizens, including new jobs, reduced poverty, and lower mortality rates. They also see that not addressing this growing threat has real and lasting consequences.

Leaving Paris, the world's leaders must roll-up their sleeves and launch their climate pledges into action. Then, they must come together in a few short years to take even stronger measures to continue solving the climate crisis. Future generations depend on it."

I've been engaged in these climate negotiations for around 15 years and it is a great feeling to be at this juncture. This clearly isn't the end of international efforts to address the greatest challenge of our generation, but it sure feels like the key inflection point when we finally begin to move away from climate devastation and towards a clean energy future.

Here is what is in the Paris agreement and where it is taking us (check out more "explainers" here).

New emissions reduction targets for the Post-2020 timeframe by key countries

In the lead-up to Paris, 186 countries responsible for over 90 percent of the world's climate pollution announced specific national reduction plans for climate action after 2020 (see here for our summary). These include actions from all major countries, including the US, Europe, China, India, Brazil, Mexico, and South Korea. When countries formally join this agreement, starting as early as next April, they will include these commitments in the Paris Agreement. Since countries accounting for more than 90 percent of the world's emission have already proposed their national climate actions in preparation of this moment, I fully expect that these countries will formally include these emissions reduction commitments. Countries will then need to implement the necessary domestic measures to achieve these targets.

Tools to catalyze more aggressive action over time

The agreement will strengthen future action by a regular process for countries to upgrade their targets since the best estimates show that these targets don't yet put us on the necessary safe climate trajectory. The agreement sets out mechanisms to ensure that these targets are the floor by creating a dynamic process for countries to adopt more aggressive commitments starting in 2020. Starting in 2019 countries will look collectively at where the current targets take us and then in 2020 there will be a political moment where countries will have an opportunity to strengthen their 2030 targets. Since this process begins before the agreement enters into force, as early as 2020, this process is outlined in the "Decision" (see paras 23 and 24). I'm confident that countries will find it possible to strengthen their targets as they will have found that they underestimated their ability to drive a low-carbon economy that benefits their people.

Once the agreement enters into force, starting in 2020, countries will be required to include their next round of targets in each subsequent five year period (i.e., from 2030-2035). This process will continue each successive five years (see Art 4.9). These sequential targets for each five years will steadily decline over time as the world moves towards the long-term target of net zero emissions (see Art 4.1).

Further clean energy cost reductions, confidence that policies are producing larger than expected emissions reductions, and other factors will inevitably prove to leaders that they can do more before 2030 than they are prepared to detail in 2015.

Financial support to assist developing countries

Countries have already agreed to help mobilize $100 billion by 2020 through public and private financing to assist developing countries in reducing emissions and adapting to climate change. We know that more resources will need to be mobilized after 2020 since we will be headed towards even deeper emissions reductions in subsequent years and the needs for climate resilience will grow more acute. For this reason the Paris agreement sets out a clear signal that developed countries will help mobilize even greater financial support to assist the poorest countries in building low-carbon and climate resilient economies.

The agreement outlines that developed countries will continue to support developing countries in their efforts to reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Other countries can help mobilize finance to assist developing countries (see Art 9.1-9.3). Developed countries signal that they will continue with their existing finance goal of mobilizing $100 billion per year by 2020. And they outlined that before 2025 they will set a new collective financial target from a floor of $100 billion per year (to regularly outline significantly more finance that they will mobilize, starting with the $100 billion in 2020 as the floor (see para 54 in the Decision).

These investments can help spur an even larger clean energy economy around the world, unleash additional emission reduction efforts, and help countries address the devastating impacts of climate change that will set back the well-being of their citizens.

Strengthen transparency and accountability frameworks

The Copenhagen/Cancun agreements built essentially a three-part system for transparency and accountability by: (1) requiring that countries regularly report their emissions, climate actions, and trajectory towards their targets; (2) conducting an independent expert review of those country reports; and (3) evaluating country progress through an international public review.

The new agreement strengthens this system by creating a process where countries are required to report their emissions, emissions projections, and "progress made towards achieving" their emissions reduction targets every two years. These national reports will be assessed by a group of experts and then there will be a "facilitative examination" where countries will consider the progress countries are making towards their targets (Art 9.11). And there will be a "mechanism to facilitate implementation and compliance" which should keep countries on track to their targets (Art 15).

Spurring more than countries to take climate action

The Paris conference adds to the growing groundswell of climate actions in an effort to broaden the engagement of other leaders. Governors, mayors, corporations, civil society, financial institutions, and leaders of all stripes pledged individual and collective actions that can help address climate change now. This groundswell of climate actions forms a key pillar of the Paris agreement and must be a critical part of an "all hands on deck" effort to address climate change in the coming decades. Countries have agreed to help spurt these kinds of actions after Paris through a set of parameters in the "Decision". The Paris outcome includes the appointment of two high-level champions to continue to catalyze climate action and convene all stakeholders (paragraph 122), and an annual high-level event to announce new commitments and demonstrate progress (paragraph 121).

Creating a path to even greater action in the years to come

The Paris Agreement won't "solve" climate change, but it puts us much closer to a safer trajectory and highlights the path forward. Before the Copenhagen Accord in 2009, we were potentially headed for an increase in global average temperatures of 5°C (9°F) above pre-industrial levels by 2100. Today, the meaningful commitments submitted in advance of the Paris climate summit show us that we are on a path to a 2.7° C (4.9°F) temperature rise by the end of the century, closer to the 2°C (3.6°F) goal.

This agreement has a solid foundation to build upon as countries have realized that it is in their own interest to cut their carbon pollution. They have concluded that, far from destroying the economy, domestic climate action produces real benefits for their citizens, including new jobs, reduced poverty, and lower mortality rates. And as natural disasters increase in frequency and intensity, they have seen that not addressing climate change has real and lasting consequences.

Countries will have to leave Paris and roll-up their sleeves by delivering additional domestic climate actions and laying the groundwork for even more action.

About the Authors

Jake Schmidt

Director, International program

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