In act

Paris Agreement: What is the importance of the global climate deal made five years ago?

  1. What are the goals of the Paris Agreement?
  2. Is the Paris Agreement working?
  3. Can the Paris Agreement pressure countries to do more?
  4. What comes next?
Louise Boyle
Senior Climate Correspondent
Friday 11 December 2020 13:54
Young people launch the mock COP26 online to discuss climate change

On 12 December, 2015, for the first time in history, the world united behind a pact to tackle the climate crisis: The Paris Agreement.

The legally-binding treaty, was adopted at the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), informally known as COP 21, in the French capital.

 The collective pursuit, of 196 countries, is to limit global heating well below 2 degrees celsius above preindustrial levels, and aim for 1.5C, a target which is moving increasingly out of reach. 

The human-driven climate crisis has already caused about 1.2C of global heating above pre-industrial levels. The World Meteorological Organisation says there is a 20 per cent chance that global temperatures will hit 1.5C in at least one year between 2020-2024.

Countries set their own goals, aiming for a global peak in greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, and “a climate neutral world by 2050”, says the UN.

  1. What are the goals of the Paris Agreement?

    The Paris Agreement sets out how nations will get to work on their commitments under the UNFCCC after 2020.

    The UNFCCC, which dates to 1992, is an international treaty involving almost every country, which laid the groundwork for the global effort to tackle the climate crisis. The goal is to avoid “dangerous human interference with the climate system".

    At the heart of the Paris deal are nationally determined contributions (NDCs) - countries’ pledges to reduce emissions.

    Current pledges are not enough to meaningfully tackle the crisis, so the Paris agreement has a “ratchet mechanism”, meaning each nation must come up with a bolder target for reducing emissions every five years. Updated NDCs are expected by the end of 2020.

  2. Is the Paris Agreement working?

    It’s a mixed bag. Since the Paris deal was struck five years ago, emissions have continued to rise. 

    Still no country is doing enough to achieve the Paris targets, according to the 2021 Climate Change Performance Index  which tracks the progress of 57 countries plus the EU. Together, they account for around 90 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.                      

    The world is on a pathway to temperature rise in excess of 3C this century, despite a pandemic-related dip in emissions, the latest UN Emissions Gap Report stated.  

    There are reasons to be hopeful: The “Paris effect” has led to an unexpectedly rapid shift towards a low-carbon economy, The Independent reported this week.

    The plummeting price of renewable sources of electricity, such as solar and offshore wind, has made low-carbon power “cost-competitive” when compared to fossil fuels – at a greater speed than once thought possible, according to a new report by global climate consultancy, Systemiq.

    The rise of cheap renewable power means “zero-carbon solutions” are now competitive in a sector representing around 25 per cent of global emissions, the report says. This change has happened in just five years, it added.

  3. Can the Paris Agreement pressure countries to do more?

    The Paris Agreement sets out deadlines so that countries keep up their ambitions.

    Along with the “racheting” NDCs every five years, the first major moment will be the “global stocktake” in 2023 to assess collectively what progress has been made. 

    By the end of 2023, high-level representatives from each country will be presented with the achievements, or perhaps more importantly the lack thereof, so they can figure out what’s next in ramping up climate action.

    In UN-speak, there is also an “enhanced transparency framework” - a plan for keeping countries accountable to their emissions targets. From 2024, countries are expected to provide transparent reports on what they’ve done to reduce emissions and adapt to the crisis, along with the support they’ve provided or received. 

    The information gathered will be analyzed by independent climate experts and feed into the next stocktake to figure out what collective progress has been made. 

    The Paris deal also has a facet to “facilitate implementation and promote compliance.”                                                        

     The idea is that a committee of climate experts can help countries who are falling behind in their targets, and figure out a plan to get them back with the program. But there are no penalties for noncompliance.


  4. What comes next?

    The fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement was set to coincide with COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. The conference has been pushed back a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

    Instead, the UK is co-hosting the Climate Ambition Summit with the UN and France on 12 December. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced last week that he wants the UK to slash emissions by at least 68 per cent from 1990 levels by the end of the decade.

    And on Friday, European Union leaders reached an 11th hour deal to cut the bloc’s net emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030 compared with 1990 levels, avoiding an embarrassing deadlock ahead of the weekend’s summit. 

    Also of huge importance to the Paris Agreement will be the re-entry of the US. President Trump announced the country would be leaving the deal in 2017 and it officially took effect on 4 November, 2020, the day after the presidential election.

    However following Mr Trump’s loss, president-elect Joe Biden is set to rejoin as soon as he enters the White House in January. 

    Mr Biden doesn’t require congressional approval and the US should be able to rejoin the Paris Agreement about a month after his administration notifies the UN by letter. 

    After rejoining, it is expected that the US will need to submit updated emissions targets from the Obama-era goals.

    “Global objectives can’t be met unless everybody does their part and the U.S. has to play the game,” Appalachian State University environmental sciences professor Gregg Marland, who is part of a global effort to track carbon dioxide emissions, told the Associated Press last year.

    The US re-entering the Paris Agreement may see some jockeying for position on the global stage.

    At a national level, the US has been largely absent from the climate community during the Trump administration, and in that time others have stepped up, most notably China. 

    Calling for a “green revolution”, President Xi Jinping announced at the UN General Assembly earlier this year a plan for China to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 and said the country would aim to have carbon emissions peak before the end of the decade.

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