Paris Climate Agreement: Everything You Need to Know
The Paris meeting that generated the agreement charted a new course in the effort to combat global climate change. Here’s what the accord seeks to achieve, and why our future may depend on its success.
“A world that is safer and more secure, more prosperous, and more free.” In December 2015, that was the world President Barack Obama envisioned we would leave today’s children when he announced that the United States, along with nearly 200 other countries, had committed to the Paris Climate Agreement, an ambitious global action plan to fight climate change.
Now that future may be in jeopardy, with President Donald Trump preparing to withdraw the United States from the accord—a step that legally he can’t take until after the next presidential election—as part of a larger effort to dismantle decades of U.S. environmental policy. Fortunately, instead of abandoning the fight, city, state, business, and civic leaders across the country and around the world are ramping up efforts to drive the clean energy advances needed to meet the goals of the accord and put the brakes on dangerous climate change—with or without the Trump administration.
Here’s a look at what the Paris Agreement does, how it works, and why it’s so critical to our future.
Protesters gather near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France during the 2015 UN Climate Conference.
Clement Martin/Sipa USA via Associated Press
What Is the Paris Agreement?
The Paris Agreement is a landmark environmental accord that was adopted by nearly every nation in 2015 to address climate change and its negative impacts. The deal aims to substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to limit the global temperature increase in this century to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, while pursuing means to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees. The agreement includes commitments from all major emitting countries to cut their climate-altering pollution and to strengthen those commitments over time. The pact provides a pathway for developed nations to assist developing nations in their climate mitigation and adaptation efforts, and it creates a framework for the transparent monitoring, reporting, and ratcheting up of countries’ individual and collective climate goals.
History of the Paris Agreement
Hammered out over two weeks in Paris during the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) and adopted on December 12, 2015, the Paris Agreement marked an historic turning point for global climate action, as world leaders representing 195 nations came to a consensus on an accord that has commitments from all countries aimed at combating climate change and adapting to its impacts.
President Obama was able to formally enter the United States into the agreement under international law through executive action, since it imposed no new legal obligations on the country. The United States has a number of tools already on the books, under laws already passed by Congress, to cut carbon pollution. The country formally joined the agreement in September 2016 after submitting its proposal for participation. The Paris Agreement could not take effect until at least 55 nations representing at least 55 percent of global emissions had formally joined. This happened on October 5, 2016, and the agreement went into force 30 days later on November 4, 2016.
How Many Countries Are in the Paris Agreement?
At present, 197 countries—every nation on earth, with the last signatory being war-torn Syria—have adopted the Paris Agreement. Of those, 179 have solidified their climate proposals with formal approval—including the United States, for now. The only major emitting countries that have yet to formally join the agreement are Russia, Turkey, and Iran.
The Paris Agreement and Trump
Following through on a campaign promise, Trump—a climate denier who has claimed climate change is a “hoax” perpetuated by China—announced in June 2017 his intent to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement. Yet notwithstanding the president’s declaration from the Rose Garden that “We’re getting out,” it’s not quite that easy. The process for withdrawing requires that the agreement be in force for three years before any country can formally announce its intention to drop out. Then it has to wait a year before actually leaving the pact. This means the earliest the United States could officially exit is November 4, 2020—a day after the presidential election. Even a formal withdrawal wouldn’t necessarily be permanent, experts say; a future president could rejoin in as short as a month’s time.
Since Trump’s announcement, U.S. envoys have continued to participate—as mandated—in U.N. climate negotiations to solidify details of the agreement. Meanwhile, thousands of leaders nationwide have stepped in to fill the void created by the lack of federal climate leadership, reflecting the will of the vast majority of Americans who support the Paris Agreement. Among city and state officials, businesses leaders, universities, and private citizens, there has been a groundswell of participation in initiatives such as America’s Pledge, the United States Climate Alliance, We Are Still In, and the American Cities Climate Challenge. The complementary and sometimes overlapping movements aim to deepen and accelerate efforts to tackle climate change at the local, regional, and national levels. Each of these efforts is focused on keeping the United States working toward the goals of the Paris Agreement despite the attempts by Trump to take the country in the opposite direction.
Paris Agreement Summary
The 32-page document establishes a framework for global climate action, including the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change, support for developing nations, and the transparent reporting and strengthening of climate goals. Here’s what it aims to do:
The Sinclair Oil Refinery in Sinclair, Wyoming
Nick Cote for NRDC
Limit global temperature rise by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
In an effort to “significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change,” the accord calls for limiting the global average temperature rise in this century to well below 2 degrees Celsius, while pursuing efforts to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. It also asks countries to work to achieve a leveling-off of global greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and to become carbon neutral no later than the second half of this century. To achieve these objectives, 186 countries—responsible for more than 90 percent of global emissions—submitted carbon reduction targets, known as “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs), prior to the Paris conference. These targets outlined each country’s commitments for curbing emissions (including through the preservation of carbon sinks) through 2025 or 2030, including both economy-wide carbon-cutting goals and the individual commitments of some 2,250 cities and 2,025 companies.
INDCs turn into NDCs—nationally determined contributions—once a country formally joins the agreement. There are no specific requirements about how or how much countries should cut emissions, but there have been political expectations about the type and stringency of targets by various countries. As a result, national plans vary greatly in scope and ambition, largely reflecting each country’s capabilities, its level of development, and its contribution to emissions over time. China, for example, committed to leveling off its carbon emissions no later than 2030 and reducing carbon emissions per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) by 60 to 65 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. India set its sights on cutting emissions intensity by 33 to 35 percent below 2005 levels and generating 40 percent of its electricity from non-fossil-fuel sources by 2030.
The United States—the world’s largest historical emitter and the second-biggest current carbon emitter after China—committed to cutting overall greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. U.S. initiatives to achieve the target include the Clean Power Plan (a state-by-state program to cut carbon pollution from the power sector) and the tightening of automotive fuel economy standards to reduce transportation emissions—both policies the Trump administration is working hard to roll back.
Smog covers the city of Taiwan.
CSL media Productions via Flickr
Provide a framework for transparency, accountability, and the achievement of more ambitious targets.
The Paris Agreement includes a series of mandatory measures for the monitoring, verification, and public reporting of progress toward a country’s emissions-reduction targets. The enhanced transparency rules apply common frameworks for all countries, with accommodations and support provided for nations that currently lack the capacity to enable them to strengthen their systems over time.
Among other requirements, countries must report their greenhouse gas inventories and progress relative to their targets, allowing outside experts to evaluate their success. Countries are also expected to revisit their pledges by 2020 and put forward new targets every five years, with the goal of further driving down emissions. They must participate in a “global stocktake” to measure collective efforts toward meeting the Paris Agreement’s long-term goals as well. Meanwhile, developed countries also have to estimate how much financial assistance they’ll allocate to developing nations to help them reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change.
These transparency and accountability provisions are similar to those in the frameworks of other international agreements. While the system doesn’t include financial penalties, the requirements are aimed at making the progress of individual nations easy to track and fostering a sense of global peer pressure, discouraging any dragging of feet among countries that may consider doing so.
Mobilize support for climate change mitigation and adaptation in developing nations.
Recognizing that many developing countries and small island nations that have contributed the least to climate change could suffer the most from its consequences, the Paris Agreement includes a plan for developed countries—and others “in a position to do so”—to continue to provide financial resources to help developing countries mitigate and increase resilience to climate change. The agreement builds on the financial commitments of the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, which aimed to scale up public and private climate finance for developing nations to $100 billion a year by 2020. (To put that into perspective, global military spending in 2017 alone was about $1.7 trillion, more than a third of which came from the United States.) The Copenhagen pact also created the Green Climate Fund to help mobilize transformational finance using targeted public dollars. The Paris Agreement established the expectation that the world would set a higher annual goal by 2025 to build on the $100 billion target for 2020 and would put mechanisms in place to achieve that scaling up.
While developed nations are not legally bound to contribute a specific amount to the mitigation and adaptation efforts of developing countries, they are encouraged to provide financial support and are required to report on the financing they supply or will mobilize.
Ice melt in Greenland
Christopher Michel via Flickr
Why Is the Paris Agreement Important?
Rarely is there consensus among nearly all nations on a single topic. But with the Paris accord, leaders from around the world collectively agreed 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. It also created a clear framework for all countries to make emissions reduction commitments and strengthen those actions over time. Here are some key reasons why the agreement is so important:
Human-generated emissions cause global warming.
Carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane are gases that collect in the atmosphere and prevent heat from radiating from earth’s surface into space, creating what’s known as the greenhouse effect. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading international scientific body studying the subject, the concentration of these heat-trapping gases has increased substantially since preindustrial times to levels not seen in at least 800,000 years. Carbon dioxide (the chief contributor to climate change) is up by 40 percent, nitrous oxide by 20 percent, and methane by a whopping 150 percent since 1750—mainly from the burning of dirty fossil fuels. The IPCC says it’s “extremely likely” that these emissions are mostly to blame for the rise in global temperatures since the 1950s. Meanwhile, deforestation and forest degradation have contributed their fair share of global carbon emissions as well.
Tell President Trump we demand immediate action on climate change
Hotter temperatures—both on land and at sea—alter global weather patterns and change how and where precipitation falls. Those shifting patterns exacerbate dangerous and deadly drought, heat waves, floods, wildfires, and storms, including hurricanes. They also melt ice caps, glaciers, and layers of permafrost, which can lead to rising sea levels and coastal erosion. Warmer temperatures impact whole ecosystems as well, throwing migration patterns and life cycles out of whack. For example, an early spring can induce trees and plants to flower before bees and other pollinators have emerged. While global warming may equate to longer growing seasons and higher food production in some regions, areas already coping with water scarcity are expected to become drier, creating the potential for drought, failed crops, or wildfires.
Climate change endangers human health.
As climate change fuels temperature increases and extreme weather events, it jeopardizes our air, water, and food; spreads disease; and imperils our homes and safety. We are confronting a growing public health crisis.
Extreme heat contributes directly to cardiovascular deaths and respiratory disease. In the Indian city of Ahmedabad, for example, more than 1,300 excess deaths were recorded during a heat wave in May 2010. High temperatures also reduce air quality by creating more smog, pollen, and other air-borne allergens—all of which can trigger asthma, which afflicts 235 million people around the world. Extreme heat can also exacerbate drought, leading to malnutrition and famine.
Extreme weather and rising seas can destroy homes, public infrastructure, and entire ways of life—forcing people to move or migrate, displacing whole populations, and increasing the threat of civil unrest. Indeed, the World Economic Forum ranks extreme weather, natural disasters, and our collective failure to mitigate and adapt to climate change as among the greatest threats facing humanity in the coming decade. We’re already experiencing some of those dangers. In the United States, six recent natural disasters equated to tens of thousands of hospitalizations and ER and doctor visits, as well as more than 1,600 premature deaths. In 2017 alone, 16 extreme weather–related disasters cost the country a record-breaking $306 billion in damages.
The countries hardest hit by the impact of climate change will be low-lying nations uniquely vulnerable to sea level rise and developing countries that lack the resources to adapt to temperature and precipitation changes. But wealthy nations such as the United States are increasingly vulnerable as well. Indeed, many millions of Americans—particularly children, the elderly, and the impoverished—are already suffering climate change’s wrath.
Flooding overtakes a farm in Bangladesh.
Amir Jina via Flickr
Global warming can be mitigated only with global action.
The IPCC notes that climate change will be limited only by “substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.” While one can debate the merits of using a single global temperature threshold to represent dangerous climate change, the general scientific view is that any rise in global temperatures of more than 2 degrees Celsius would be an unacceptable risk—potentially resulting in mass extinctions, more severe droughts and hurricanes, and a watery Arctic. Furthermore, as the IPCC notes, while it remains uncertain precisely how much global warming will “trigger abrupt and irreversible changes” in the earth’s systems, the risk of crossing the threshold only increases as temperatures rise.
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.
The McFadden Ridge Wind Energy Project in Carbon County, Wyoming
Nick Cote for NRDC
What Are the Paris Agreement's Costs?
There’s a lot of misinformation out there about the Paris Agreement, including the idea that it will hurt the U.S. economy. That was among a number of unfounded claims Trump repeated in his 2017 Rose Garden address, arguing that the accord would cost the U.S. economy $3 trillion by 2040 and $2.7 million jobs by 2025, making us less competitive against China and India. But as fact checkers noted, these statistics originated from a debunked March 2017 study that exaggerated the future costs of emissions reductions, underestimated advances in energy efficiency and clean energy technologies, and outright ignored the huge health and economic costs of climate change itself.
In fact, research makes clear that the cost of climate inaction far outweighs the cost of reducing carbon pollution. One recent study suggests that if the United States failed to meet its Paris climate goals, it could cost the economy as much as $6 trillion in the coming decades. A worldwide failure to meet the NDCs currently laid out in the agreement could reduce global GDP more than 25 percent by century’s end. Meanwhile, another study estimates that meeting—or even exceeding—the Paris goals via infrastructure investments in both clean energy and energy efficiency could have major global rewards—to the tune of some $19 trillion.
In terms of employment, the clean energy sector already employs more than 3 million Americans—about 14 times the number of coal, gas, oil, and other fossil fuel industry workers—and has the potential to employ many more with further investments in energy efficiency, renewable energy, and electric grid modernization to replace the aging coal-powered infrastructure. Indeed, moving forward with the Clean Power Plan alone could deliver more than a half-million new jobs by 2030. Meanwhile, coal jobs aren’t so much being transferred “out of America”—another Trump claim—as they are falling victim to market forces as renewable and natural gas prices decline.
Finally, rather than giving China and India a pass to pollute, as Trump claims, the pact represents the first time those two major developing economies have agreed to concrete and ambitious climate commitments. Both countries, which are already poised to lead the world in renewable energy, have made significant progress to meet their Paris goals. And since Trump announced his intent to withdraw the United States from the accord, the leaders of China and India have reaffirmed their commitment and continued to implement domestic measures toward achieving their targets.
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
In 1992, President George H.W. Bush joined 107 other heads of state at the Rio Earth Summit in Brazil to adopt a series of environmental agreements, including the UNFCCC framework that remains in effect today. The international treaty aims to prevent dangerous human interference with earth’s climate systems over the long term. The pact sets no limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual countries and contains no enforcement mechanisms, but instead establishes a framework for international negotiations of future agreements, or protocols, to set binding emissions targets. Participating countries meet annually at a Conference of the Parties (COP) to assess their progress and continue talks on how to best tackle climate change.
The Kyoto Protocol, a landmark environmental treaty that was adopted in 1997 at the COP3 in Japan, represents the first time nations agreed to legally mandated, country-specific emissions reduction targets. The protocol, which didn’t go into effect until 2005, set binding emissions reduction targets for developed countries only, on the premise that they were responsible for most of the earth’s high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. The United States initially signed the agreement but never ratified it; President George W. Bush argued that the deal would hurt the U.S. economy since developing nations such as China and India were not included. Without the participation of those three countries, the treaty’s effectiveness proved limited, with its targets covering only a small fraction of total global emissions.
The Kyoto Protocol’s initial commitment period extended through 2012. That year, at the COP18 in Doha, Qatar, delegates agreed to extend the accord until 2020 (without some developed nations that had dropped out). They also reaffirmed their 2011 pledge from the COP17 in Durban, South Africa, to create a new, comprehensive climate treaty by 2015 that would require all big emitters not included in the Kyoto Protocol—such as China, India, and the United States—to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The new treaty—what would become the Paris Agreement—was to fully replace the Kyoto Protocol by 2020. However, the Paris accord went into effect earlier than expected, in November 2016.
Kyoto Protocol Versus the Paris Agreement
While the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement both set out to address climate change, there are some key differences between them.
Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, which established legally binding emissions reduction targets (as well as penalties for noncompliance) for developed nations only, the Paris Agreement requires that all countries—rich, poor, developed, and developing—do their part and slash greenhouse gas emissions. To that end, greater flexibility is built into the Paris Agreement: No language is included on the commitments countries should make, nations can voluntarily set their emissions targets (NDCs), and countries incur no penalties for falling short of their proposed targets. What the Paris Agreement does require, however, is the monitoring, reporting, and reassessing of individual and collective country targets over time in an effort to move the world closer to the broader objectives of the deal. And the agreement sets forth a requirement for countries to announce their next round of targets every five years—unlike the Kyoto Protocol, which aimed for that objective but didn’t include a specific requirement to achieve it.
The aftermath of a wildfire near Santiam Pass in Oregon
Sheila Sund via Flickr
While the Paris Agreement ultimately aims to cap global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius in this century, many studies evaluating the voluntary pledges individual countries made in Paris show that the cumulative effect of those emissions reductions won’t be large enough to keep temperatures under that cap. Indeed, the targets countries laid out are expected to limit future temperature rise to between 2.7 and 3.7 degrees Celsius. Meanwhile, 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 to ensure that happens.
Reflecting the collective belief of nearly every nation on earth that climate change is humanity’s war to fight, the Paris Agreement exposes America’s climate skeptics—including Trump—as global outliers. In fact, the mobilization of support for climate action across the country and the world provides hope that the Paris Agreement marked a turning point in the fight 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. The effort will be well worth the reward of a safer, cleaner world for future generations.
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