Visitors enter the U.S. “We Are Still In” pavilion at the COP 23 United Nations Climate Change Conference on November 11, 2017 in Bonn, Germany. (Lukas Schulze/Getty Images)

Paris Climate Agreement: Everything You Need to Know

The Paris Agreement charted a new course in the effort to combat global climate change, requiring countries to make commitments and progressively strengthen them. Here’s what the accord seeks to achieve, and why our future may depend on its success.

Protesters gather near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France during the 2015 UN Climate Conference.

Clement Martin/Sipa USA via Associated Press

The Sinclair Oil Refinery in Sinclair, Wyoming

Nick Cote for NRDC

Smog covers the city of Taiwan.

CSL media Productions via Flickr

Ice melt in Greenland

Christopher Michel via Flickr

Flooding overtakes a farm in Bangladesh.

Amir Jina via Flickr

The McFadden Ridge Wind Energy Project in Carbon County, Wyoming

Nick Cote for NRDC

The aftermath of a wildfire near Santiam Pass in Oregon

Sheila Sund via Flickr

Beyond Paris

While the Paris Agreement ultimately aims to cap global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius in this century, many studies evaluating the national pledges countries made in Paris show that the cumulative effect of those emissions reductions won’t be large enough to keep temperatures under that limit. Indeed, the targets that countries laid out are expected to limit future temperature rise to approximately 2.9 degrees Celsius. Meanwhile, despite temporary emissions drops related to changes in production and travel associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, current evaluations of how countries are performing in the context of their Paris climate goals indicate some nations are already falling short of their commitments.

However, it’s important to remember the Paris Agreement isn’t static. Instead, it’s designed to boost countries’ national efforts over time—meaning that current commitments represent the floor, not the ceiling, of climate change ambition. The heavy lifting—reining in emissions even further by 2030 and 2050—still needs to be done, and the accord provides the tools and pressure to make that happen.

As the Paris Agreement matures, nations including the United States must firmly commit to phasing out fossil fuel investment (locally and abroad) and investing in nature-based solutions. Often, the communities who contribute least to global emissions are the ones already showing wealthier nations the way, committing to rapid emissions reductions, renewable energy expansion, protecting their forests, and putting economies on low-carbon pathways. Nations must uplift these communities as well as those who are faced with the brunt of climate impacts. This includes formally protecting Indigenous knowledge and rights, which are critical to fighting the climate crisis. Indigenous peoples—comprising 5 percent of the global population—protect 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. Even without stronger recognition within the Paris Agreement, Indigenous and frontline communities are building a global movement and successfully fighting back against extractive, climate-damaging industries, including fossil-fuel pipelines, logging, dams, and mining.

Reflecting the collective belief of nearly every nation on earth that climate change is humanity’s race to win, the Paris Agreement exposes America’s climate skeptics as global outliers. In fact, the mobilization of support for climate action across the country and around the world provides hope that the Paris Agreement marked a turning point in the global race against climate change. We can all contribute to the cause by seeking opportunities to slash global warming contributions—at the individual, local, and national levels—but we understand better than ever that individual action is not enough. There is a lot of damage from the Trump administration that President Biden will need to undo—and quickly. But the effort will be well worth the reward of a safer, cleaner world for future generations.

The next Conference of the Parties is currently scheduled for November 2021 in Glasgow. The aims of COP 26 will be to assess the progress made under the Paris Agreement and to encourage countries to enhance their original NDCs into greater alignment with current climate science. While COP 26 was postponed due to COVID-19, the delay gives countries time to develop more ambitious targets and accelerate low-carbon actions to ensure a green and resilient recovery from COVID-19.

This story was originally published on December 12, 2018 and has been updated with new information and links. stories are available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the story was originally published by and link to the original; the story cannot be edited (beyond simple things such as time and place elements, style, and grammar); you can’t resell the story in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select stories individually; you can't republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our stories.


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