Former U.S. President Barack Obama has called it "the best chance we have to save the one planet that we've got." He was referring to the Paris Agreement, or the Paris climate accord—a 2015 pact made by 196 nations to tackle the issue of climate change. As of July of 2017, 195 members of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have signed the agreement, and 154 have ratified it. The Paris Agreement, like its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, is tasked with providing guidelines to mitigate against the effects of global warming.
The primary goals of the Paris Agreement are to encourage the use of more environmentally friendly sources of energy, to temper the effects of climate change, and to provide direction to counter the inevitable impact of climate change. Although it is considered a major turning point in international climate change, the agreement is still the subject of some controversy, with critics claiming that certain provisions within the agreement are insufficient for taking on the challenge of global warming. More recently, the United States, during the administration of President Donald Trump, opted to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, prompting further debates as to the viability of the pact.
The Paris Agreement was the direct result of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21). The Conference of Parties (COP) is the decision-making body of the UNFCCC, which meets annually to discuss how to mitigate against the effects of climate change and how to achieve environmentally friendly objectives. The Paris Agreement first took shape during one of these conferences, the COP17, which was held in Durban, South Africa, in 2011. The COP17 established the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, also known as simply the Durban Platform. This platform attempted to negotiate "another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force," with plans to follow up by 2015 at the COP21 talks (the conference in Paris).
Climate change is a global problem with grave implications, and the world has been struggling to find a suitable framework for addressing this problem. The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997, was the first agreement among nations to deal with the problem of greenhouse gases on an international scale. However, it was fraught with controversy, and its commitment period ended in 2012. Negotiations were held for a replacement to the Kyoto Protocol, which were likewise embroiled in controversies. Given the troubled history in establishing regulatory instruments to deal with the impact of climate change, in the lead up to the COP21, organizers of the Paris Conference took pains to avoid the mistakes that plagued previous discussions and successfully managed a consensus by the end of the talks.
The Paris Conference was held from November 30 to December 12, 2015, when the agreement was officially adopted by consensus. The United Nations (U.N.) has been engaged in long and painstaking discussions regarding the future of the international climate, and the Paris Agreement has become known as the world's first comprehensive climate agreement.
Commitment targets were set for April 21, 2017, by which 55 nations that account for at least 55 percent of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions were required to formally accept the agreement before it could go into effect. That requirement was met on October 5, 2016, and the Paris climate accord officially came into force 30 days later. Participating nations are required to submit long-term plans (called "nationally determined contributions," or NDCs) for lowering greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.
Major Goals and Criticisms
The main goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, to be achieved by "mid-century." At the time, 2015 was the warmest year on record with an average temperature rise of 0.87 degrees Celsius (0.83 degrees Fahrenheit), according to figures published by NASA, although the temperature rose to 0.99 degrees Celsius (0.91 degrees Fahrenheit) average a year later. The 2-degree target will not be able to slow the more drastic effects of global warming, but it can help to keep global greenhouse gas emissions in check, at least to some extent.
Critics argue that the Paris climate accord lacks specifics. They say that although the agreement provides a bottom-up approach to mitigation through the NDC, it lacks mechanisms to enforce or punish nations for failing to comply with their stated targets. Moreover, they argue that the Paris Agreement is only a "first step" toward averting the dangers of inevitable climate change.
Representatives from small island nations have also criticized the 2-degree goal and are calling for a more ambitious below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) global warming limit. This call is in response to arguments that the 2-degree benchmark puts their nations at risk given the continuing sea level rise.
The Paris Agreement has stipulated that the developed world will provide a minimum of 100 billion dollars per year to developing countries to help them meet the challenges of the climate accord. This financial aid is meant to help developing countries transition to greener sources of fuel and to adapt to the effects of global warming. These funds will also serve as reparation to countries that have suffered the more debilitating effects of climate change despite having done little to cause it.
The United States was one of the major participants in the Paris negotiations despite being one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gas. After a remarkable presidential election season, during which the topic of climate change was frequently raised, the U.S. government officially approved the Paris Agreement on September 3, 2016. In the run-up to the elections, Donald Trump notably issued statements about climate change that were contrary to scientific consensus.
Another part of Trump's presidential campaign platform was his promise to withdraw the United States from the Paris deal--a promise he fulfilled in June of 2017. While President Trump has stated that he will keep an "open mind" regarding the agreement, he nevertheless argued that the Paris Agreement puts the United States at an economic disadvantage, stating that he "will work to ensure America remains the world's leader on environmental issues, but under a framework that is fair." The decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement has sparked a worldwide backlash. On the one hand, the world (barring Syria and Nicaragua, both of which also opted out of the agreement) is in agreement regarding the urgency to stop global warming. On the other hand, it has been suggested that the deal could result in serious consequences for the global economy. The Trump administration will therefore only accept the deal on condition that its terms are modified to suit American interests--a change that is unlikely to occur.
In any case, the terms of the Paris Agreement specify that countries can only withdraw from the agreement three years after their date of entry. Furthermore, the withdrawal will only take effect one year after the notification of withdrawal, which means that the United States will only be able to formally withdraw in 2019 or 2020 at the earliest. Despite these stipulations, Trump has announced that the United States will cease implementing the non-binding terms of the agreement.
Some have argued that U.S. withdrawal will encourage others to follow suit. Moreover, the world will be short on climate funding, as the United States pledged three billion dollars to the cause, while only one billion has been deposited to the U.N.'s Green Climate Fund. Trump is expected to cancel the remainder of the funding, as well as any further financial aid promised to support the Paris Agreement in general. Additonally, U.S. withdrawal could result in serious diplomatic repercussions as other nations will be less likely to cooperate with the United States on other international issues in the future.
However, others argue that the withdrawal of the United States could be an advantage. One such optimist is Dr. Luke Kemp, a climate policy expert from the Australian National University who attended the Paris summit and who has suggested that other nations might intensify their efforts to make up for the shortfall left by the United States.
In the wake of the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, other world leaders are standing firm on their commitments to the pact. China, the world's largest emitter, is expected to dominate future talks on climate change. Furthermore, the nation is investing heavily in alternative energy sources, such as wind and nuclear power.
These efforts might not be enough to curb the problem of climate change, however. Current tallies of individual NDC pledges still put the planet at risk of growing 3 degrees warmer, even with U.S. participation. Moreover, none of the parties to the Paris Agreement have announced efforts to make up for the shortfall left by the impending withdrawal of the United States although they have nevertheless all remained committed to their pledges.
However, all is not lost, as the United States might still enter the Paris deal under a new administration. The date of formal withdrawal is around the same time as the next presidential election cycle, increasing the chances for the United States to re-enter the Paris Agreement.