What is the Paris agreement?

Joe Ronan

Joe Ronan

Climate change deal struck at Paris Summit

We’re going to explain what the Paris Agreement is, and why it matters. Paris sits in a long tradition of international agreements, but the agreement is probably the most important one signed this century. This and more we explore below.  

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What is the Paris agreement? – Put simply 

The Paris Agreement is the most important international agreement ever signed on climate change. It was signed in Paris, in 2015, at a council convened by the United Nations. It states: 

  • That nations will limit global warming to between 1.5 and 2 degrees celsius
  • That carbon neutrality will be achieved by 2050
  • Climate change is a common concern of humankind 
  • That climate change must be tackled by both governments and individuals alike
  • That parties must protect the rights of indigenous peoples

The UN has signed similarly significant documents before, most notably the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in 1948. However, for the Paris Agreement to have the same impact, it is clear that further steps must be taken to honour the agreement. 

Under the agreement, countries have the right to set their own targets. However, we are currently on track for a 3.0C rise, falling short of the agreement’s preferred rise of between 1.5C and 2C. Figures like Donald Trump, who took the United States out of the Paris Agreement, have disrupted the global fight against climate change. 

UN leaders have since called for more ambitious targets to be set, ahead of the most important climate conference since Paris, which will be held in Glasgow, in November of this year. This is the next big step in the international fight against climate change.      

Presidencia de la República Mexicana & Flickr. The delegates meet at Paris in 2015 – not the most gender balanced crowd, you might notice.

What is the Paris agreement?

The Paris Agreement is an international treaty that commits 196 nations to tackle climate change. At a council convened by the UN in Paris, the agreement was adopted on the 12th of December 2015 and entered into force on the 14th of November 2016. Its core goals include limiting global warming to between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. 

The Paris Agreement was the first international agreement to commit all nations to lower carbon emissions. It was a historic moment; and as the deal was adopted, cheers and clapping went up from the delegates.   

Barack Obama, then US President, said of the deal, ‘today is a historic day in the fight to protect our planet for future generations. This gives us the best possible shot to save the one planet we got. With optimism and faith and hope, we are proving it is possible.’ 

Paris Agreement - 3 steps

The Paris agreement attempts to deal with climate change head-on 

The Paris Agreement acknowledges that ‘climate change is a common concern of humankind.’ It also, crucially, states ‘the importance of all levels of government and various actors,’ whilst simultaneously recognising: ‘that sustainable lifestyles and sustainable patterns of consumption and production, with developed country Parties taking the lead, play an important role, in addressing climate change.’  

Rightly, then, the agreement treads the line between demanding government policy and placing agency in the hands of individuals. Just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of global emissions since 1988 – political regulation is without a doubt necessary to tackle these powerful ‘carbon majors.’ That said, as the Paris Agreement on climate change makes clear, the individual citizen and consumer still have a responsibility to pursue more sustainable choices.    

Furthermore, the Paris Agreement makes clear that parties must consider: ‘the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity.’ 

This is important. The UNFCCC Paris Agreement thereby commits its signatories not only to the tackling of climate change on the macro level but also grants agency to the individual whilst pledging to protect those most at risk of exploitation. Climate discussions can be abstract and scientific; it is good to see climate policy with a human face. 

Placing the Paris Agreement in History

The forerunner to the UN, the League of Nations, was founded in Paris in 1920. Dominated by a small group of mainly European nations, it fell apart with the rise of fascism and the Second World War. The League lost all credibility after failing to halt Italian aggression in Ethiopia and the Japanese invasion of China. It was, however, the first attempt at creating an organization for international cooperation, and part of the history that feeds into the Paris Climate Agreement. 

In 1945, the United Nations was formed. In 1948 – also, funnily enough, in Paris – the UN signed the Declaration of Human Rights. The document set the tone for the decades that followed the Second World War. It was bold, necessary and moral. In response to the brutality of war and the failure of the League, it made clear statements about what the world demanded from the future.

One can only hope that the Paris Climate Agreement will become a document of similar historical significance. However, whilst it sits in that same tradition of multi-national action, the Paris Agreement is a very different document to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, responding to a different set of challenges. 

Problems with the Paris Agreement

The agreement, however, is far from perfect. The climate deal pledges to keep global temperatures ‘well below’ a 2.0C rise from pre-industrial revolution temperatures, expressing a ‘preference’ for a 1.5C rise. 

Research from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), however, indicates that the very idea of a single, stable global temperature is something of a myth. Indeed, some regions have already seen warming pass the 1.5C threshold.  

Should average heating pass above the 1.5C mark, the consequences are potentially disastrous. A 2.0C rise would mean the melting of much of the Arctic, rapidly rising sea-levels and low-lying nations like the Maldives underwater – tell the people of the Maldives that you ‘might prefer’ a 1.5C rise. Likewise, at 1.5C, 14% of the global population are projected to be exposed to severe heat waves every five years. At 2.0C, that figure leaps to 37%. 

Given the significance of the difference between a 1.5C and 2.0C rise, then, a ‘preference’ is clearly not good enough.

Furthermore, in couching the desire to limit global heating in such lackadaisical language, the agreement fails to convey the urgency needed to reach even the 2.0C target. According to the IPCC report of 2018, we are in fact currently on course for a 3.0C rise. Keeping to the 1.5C rise will require ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’ – this the Paris climate agreement fails to make clear.

A 3.0C rise could lead to apocalyptic scenes. So how to explain this terrifying statistic? Well, under the Paris agreement, each country is free to set its own targets for emission reduction; so-called NDCs (nationally determined contributions) form the basis of the agreement. Again, this provides too much lee-way for major polluters to continue polluting. 

Paris and Climate Politics    

In his first month in office, Joe Biden officially returned the United States to the Paris Agreement just 107 days after the country had left under Donald Trump. Trump’s presidency was inauspicious in many ways, but especially on climate action. Last year, Trump attacked climate ‘alarmists’ and ‘prophets of doom’ who he said wanted to ‘control every aspect of our lives.’

According to former EU Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard, the US re-joining the Paris Agreement means that: ‘there is a real possibility of having a real restart of the whole global climate agenda now.’ 

However, as Hedegaard’s words imply, the world is in a drastically different place today than it was in 2015. The last five years have seen the rise of the populist right, with the elections of Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro and their ilk seriously threatening the climate agenda. Only 45 countries submitted their emission targets within the 2020 deadline. 

The UK is preparing to host the COP26 UN Climate Summit in Glasgow this November, the most important climate summit since the Paris Agreement in 2015. This February, in a typically misguided fashion, Boris Johnson announced plans to open the first new deep coal mine in the UK for thirty years. 

Mohamed Adow, the winner of the Climate Breakthrough Award, described the decision as ‘bizarre and shocking… People in the developing world who are suffering from the effects of the climate crisis will be horrified. They are relying on the UK to be their champion on climate change and be an example, not returning to the dirty days of coal.’

These sentiments were echoed by Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh: ‘The UK’s rhetoric loses credibility when a coal mine is approved and also when their development assistance budget is drastically cut as well.’

BBC. The dirty days of coal. Pictured, the now decommissioned Fiddler’s Ferry Coal-fired power station in Warrington.

To the Future 

As such, perhaps the most important aspect of the Paris Agreement is that it is consciously orientated towards the future. It commits those that sign to pursuing carbon neutrality by 2050, and to limit global warming. 

Reading the agreement, you are immediately struck by its seriousness. This may sound silly, but after years of inaction on climate change, here, at last, is a multilateral agreement committing governments to tackle the issue. For all its faults, and for all the world has changed since it was signed, for anyone interested in climate change, the document itself remains a heady read. 

With 196 signatories, it is also a global document, in response to a global problem. This offers hope. After the manifold disasters of the first of the twentieth century, the Declaration of Human Rights marked the beginning of a period of relative peace. The Paris Agreement has the capacity to fulfil a similarly seismic role in the twenty-first century. 

How the agreement is judged is likely to depend on what happens from here. Action is needed. Ultimately, talk of the Paris Agreement as a document of historic importance will look laughable if its words remain mere words. Echoes of the League of Nations still haunt the UN; history is full of betrayed ideals and dashed hopes. 

As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made clear on Friday, calling for more ambitious NDCs, 2021 is a ‘make or break’ year for the climate. The Paris Climate Agreement was about recognising the reality of the problem posed by climate change and agreeing upon the vital need to solve it. A start, for sure, but only a start. 

But, as we emerge from lockdown into the spring sun, you cannot but hope that this will be the year that we ‘make’ rather than ‘break’ the fight for the climate. Paris set the tone. Nevertheless, if the future is to be bright, there remains work to be done.        

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