The Paris Agreement is an international climate accord that was reached in 2015 and went into effect in 2016. It was brokered by the United Nations (UN) and furthers actions to combat global warming and climate change that were originally articulated in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) of 1992.
Nearly all the world's nations have agreed to make some type of climate commitment under the Paris Agreement. Officially, their pledges are called nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Some NDCs are promises to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by specific amounts over the coming decades. Other NDCs are pledges to increase forested land, decrease deforestation rates, or take other measures to aid the climate change fight.
The NDCs are nonbinding. There are no enforcement measures built into the Paris Agreement to punish noncompliance. It is hoped that nations will fulfill their pledges out of concern for the planet's future. That concern grows as climate experts issue more urgent warnings about the dire consequences of continued global warming and climate change.
The Paris Agreement builds on the framework of the UNFCCC, which was adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The parties to international treaties, such as the UNFCCC, include both nations and blocs of nations. For example, the European Union (EU) is a confederation of dozens of European countries.
The UNFCCC went into effect in 1994. It did not set specific emissions limits. Instead, it set goals for developed countries to monitor their GHG emissions and publicly report the information. Only developed economies were targeted because they were deemed to be the most responsible for global warming due to their long and intensive histories of fossil fuel use and industrialization.
A UNFCCC meeting called the Conference of the Parties (COP) is held each year. In 1997, COP3 took place in Kyoto, Japan. The delegates crafted the Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC. It established GHG emissions reduction targets for the EU and economically developed countries. They agreed to reduce their emissions by 2012 as compared with their recorded emissions in 1990.
International treaties have a two-step approval process: signing and ratifying. Parties indicate their intention to join a treaty by signing it. However, they are not officially bound by the treaty until it is ratified or otherwise approved under their domestic laws and procedures.
The Kyoto Protocol went into effect in 2005. At that time, more than 140 parties had already ratified it. Dozens more did so over subsequent years. China and India, like other developing countries, agreed to implement national programs to combat climate change but were not required to meet specific emissions limits.
The U.S. government signed the protocol in 1998, but declined to ratify it under U.S. law, meaning that it did not consent to be bound by the treaty. A key sticking point was the exclusion of major GHG emitters, such as China and India, from the emissions targets. The U.S. government also feared that decreasing domestic fossil fuel consumption would harm its economy.
As the first decade of the twenty-first century drew to a close, a near-global economic downturn occurred that dramatically lowered energy demand. The concurrent decline in GHG emissions helped developed economies achieve the overall goal set for them under the Kyoto Protocol. However, global GHG emissions increased dramatically between 1990 and 2012 due mostly to rapid industrialization in China and India.
In 2012, a meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol was held in Doha, Qatar. The delegates adopted the Doha Amendment to the protocol. It added a second commitment period lasting through 2020. Although more than 100 parties accepted the amendment, the number was insufficient to trigger its official entry into force.
Implementing the Paris Agreement
In 2015, COP21 was held in Paris. It resulted in the Paris Agreement, a new international accord under the UNFCCC for the post-2020 time frame.
The goal of the agreement is to limit the average global temperature rise to less than 2℃ (3.6℉) by 2100, compared with preindustrial levels. Climatologists report that Earth has already warmed by about 1℃ (1.8℉) since the late 1800s, which has caused worrisome changes in its ecosystems and climate.
The Paris Agreement was slated to take effect after fifty-five UNFCCC parties—accounting for at least 55 percent of the total global GHG emissions—ratified or otherwise accepted it. This milestone occurred in November 2016.
The U.S. president Barack Obama (1961–) officially accepted the Paris Agreement during a 2016 summit in China, along with the Chinese president Xi Jinping (1953–). However, Obama's successor—President Donald Trump (1946–)—announced in 2017 his intention to withdraw the United States from the agreement. Official withdrawal is a lengthy process that takes at least four years to complete.
As of mid-2019, the U.S. withdrawal had not been finalized. At that time, 184 other parties had ratified/accepted the Paris Agreement. This left only eleven nonratifying parties: Angola, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Libya, the Russian Federation, South Sudan, Turkey, and Yemen. There were media reports suggesting that the Russian government intended to ratify the agreement before the end of 2019.
Paris Agreement Pledges
The Paris Agreement was designed to be broader and more flexible than the Kyoto Protocol. The latter included fixed emissions targets that applied to only economically developed parties. By contrast, the Paris Agreement requires every party to establish an NDC.
Each NDC must be updated every five years to include more ambitious goals. As of mid-2019, most of the NDCs on file with the UN were dated from 2016.
Some NDCs include Kyoto-like emissions targets. For example, the EU has pledged to achieve at least a 40 percent reduction in its overall GHG emissions by 2030, as compared with 1990 levels. Australia's NDC is a commitment to reduce its GHG emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent by 2030, as compared with 2005 levels. Many other developed economies have made similar quantitative pledges. Each NDC is individually crafted; thus, there are a variety of actions proposed by the parties, depending on their circumstances and economic priorities.
Rather than commit to absolute emissions reductions, some developing countries are targeting their emissions intensity—that is, the volume of emissions they release per unit of gross domestic product (GDP). GDP is the total value of a nation's economic production expressed in monetary units, such as dollars or yen.
China has a rapidly growing economy that is very industrialized. In its 2016 NDC, the nation pledges to do the following by 2030:
- Achieve peaking of its carbon dioxide emissions
- Lower its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60 percent to 65 percent, as compared with 2005 levels
- Increase the percentage of nonfossil fuels it uses for primary energy consumption to around 20 percent
- Increase its forest stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic meters (158.9 billion cubic feet), compared with 2005 levels
India is another nation undergoing rapid industrialization. Its 2016 NDC is complex and contains both qualitative goals (e.g., "propagate a healthy and sustainable way of living") and quantitative goals. The latter include adding forest and tree cover, ramping up the use of nonfossil fuels, and reducing the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33 percent to 35 percent by 2030, as compared with 2005 levels.
The Paris Agreement requires parties to devise and publish their NDCs in accordance with established rules. In addition, the parties must report their GHG emissions and the actions they take to curb global warming and climate change. However, there is no enforcement mechanism built into the agreement. Parties that fail to fulfill their pledges face no specific penalties; the NDCs are voluntary in this regard. The international community expects that a sense of duty and moral responsibility will spur the parties to meet their climate obligations.
One of the hallmarks of the Kyoto Protocol was its allowance for emissions trading system (ETS) schemes. A common scheme is called cap-and-trade. A nation conducting a domestic ETS sets an emissions cap (upper limit) for the country as a whole. Individual emitters (such as power plants and factories) that are below the cap can sell their credits to other emitters that are over the cap. In this way, the overall cap is achieved, but individual emitters have flexibility in how they participate.
The Kyoto Protocol also allowed for credit transfers between countries. For example, a developed country could offset some of its actual GHG emissions by investing money in climate-friendly projects in a developing country. These kinds of transactions were permissible under the protocol's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Another option, called Joint Implementation (JI), covered credit transfers between developed nations.
CDM transfers helped many European countries achieve their GHG targets during the first and second commitment periods of the Kyoto Protocol. However, critics of the CDM process point out that it allowed European emitters to avoid making changes to curb their own GHG emissions.
Article 6 of the Paris Agreement addresses international cooperation. It calls for a new mechanism to be created to replace the CDM and JI schemes but still allow for the international transfer of credits. This has proven to be a difficult challenge. In December 2018, COP24 was held in Katowice, Poland. The parties were unable to reach agreement on a new mechanism and postponed the negotiations to a later date.
Climate Urgency Grows
The Paris Agreement has been hailed as a landmark treaty that represents significant progress in the battle against global warming and climate change. However, the parties to the agreement face tremendous obstacles toward meeting their NDC obligations. Despite huge advancements in the use of alternative energy sources, the world remains heavily dependent on fossil fuels.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1988. It is an international panel of scientists that makes recommendations regarding climate change to the UN based on current research. Since its founding, the IPCC has published numerous reports that contain scientific data, modeling results, and impact assessments. Those reports have provided key information to the parties to the UNFCCC and its subsequent agreements.
In late 2018, the IPCC published the special report Global Warming of 1.5℃. A rise of 1.5℃ is equivalent to a rise of 2.7℉, which is less than the Paris Agreement target of 2℃ (3.6℉). Nevertheless, the IPCC predicts severe climate change consequences at the 1.5℃ threshold, which could be reached as early as 2030.
In the report, the IPCC warns that the NDCs (as articulated in 2018) are not sufficient to dramatically slow the pace of global warming. In response, UN officials have urged the parties to the Paris Agreement to commit to deeper GHG cuts in their future NDCs.