Paris Agreement 101

On February 19, 2021 the United States officially rejoined the Paris Agreement. This is an important shift in US climate policy so let’s go over what it means and what the Paris Agreement is! 

What is the Paris Agreement?

It is an international agreement to address climate change under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The stated goal is to keep the rise in global mean surface temperature to below 2℃ and ideally below 1.5℃. The agreement was adopted in 2015 at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC and agreed to by 196 countries.

What is the history of the Paris Agreement?

The formal history within the UN began in 1992 with the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UNFCCC has established the vague goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to prevent ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference’ (DAI) with the climate. Over the years there were many efforts that took place under the UNFCCC to achieve this, such as the 1997 Kyoto Protocol which called for binding emissions reductions for certain countries over a short time period. One of the main issues with trying to avoid DAI is that what defines danger has different meanings for different people in different places. This meant that finding a goal that diplomatic representatives from all involved countries could agree on was rather challenging. A long and meandering path led to the decision to adopt the 2℃ (and hopefully 1.5℃) temperature target, and eventually to the Paris Agreement.

The US involvement in the process that led to the Paris Agreement is very complex. As the world’s largest historic greenhouse gas emitter the US had a lot of power during negotiations. Any international action aimed at addressing climate change must have the involvement of large emitters in order to be successful, however large emitters became that way through reliance on fossil fuels— and relatedly slavery and colonialism— and thus have an interest in seeing the use of them as an energy source continue, despite the urgent need for production to decrease. US negotiators worked to ensure that rather than avoiding binding emissions reductions the agreement instead had self defined commitments, and also that it avoided requiring things like liability for loss and damage resulting from climate disasters.

How does it work?

The Paris Agreement does not require binding emissions reductions meaning that counties are not actually required to reduce emissions by a certain amount at a certain time, nor are they required to tie their plans to address climate change to their historic emissions. Rather countries are only bound to participate in the process outlined in the agreement. That process consists of several steps. First, countries each come up with their own individual plans, called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) for how they want to address climate change. These plans can be a combination of mitigation, adaptation, finance, and technology transfer. Then every 5 years they reassess and hopefully ramp up their action plans. Ideally each iteration brings them closer to net zero emissions by mid century (the term net here gives a ton of wiggle room for things like market mechanisms that may or may not actually lead to emissions reductions).

How is it working out?

To be honest, rather poorly so far. It has been five years since the Paris Agreement was ratified and during that time emissions, greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, and temperatures have continued to rise. While there was a slight decline in emissions in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic (Le Quéré et al 2020), that decline was not a result of countries taking action on climate change, but rather of the emergency lockdowns. The pledges countries have so far submitted would put us on track for around 3°C of warming by the end of the century. The annual COP meetings are where negotiations for Paris Agreement implementation happen, however the COP meeting that was supposed to take place at the end of 2020 was cancelled (youth held their own in its place). Countries were still required to submit updated NDCs by the end of 2020 and then negotiations will continue at COP26 in November.

What does the Paris Agreement say about climate justice?

To be honest with you, dear reader, this part irritates me. There is only one mention of climate justice in the Paris Agreement and it reads: “noting the importance for some of the concept of “climate justice”, when taking action to address climate change”. Climate justice is a term used to encapsulate the many ways that a changing climate is related to sociopolitical inequality across many scales- this can include the ways climate impacts disproportionately impact marginalized populations, the ways historic emitters have had an outsized contribution to creating the problem, and much more. In my opinion, and I am sure many of you would agree, justice is one of the most fundamental, if not the most fundamental, issue at play in the climate crisis. But it is only mentioned in passing here and as only being important “to some”. Many scholars have addressed shortcomings with the Agreement with respect to climate justice (I wrote a chapter of my own dissertation that will add to this body of knowledge), however despite its shortcomings and lack of robust consideration of justice the Agreement is currently the best hope we have for a coordinated international response. And we desperately need that. So this is where the general public can play a large role- we can advocate for policies in our countries and communities that will center justice as a way of bringing this concept to the forefront of the conversation.

What happens after the US rejoins?

The Biden administration will need to submit a new NDC with a renewed pledge. The pledge that was submitted under the Obama administration was considered ‘insufficient’. Then the Trump administration withdrew from the Paris Agreement (moving us into ‘critically insufficient’ territory) and worked to undermine climate action at every opportunity with numerous environmental policy rollbackss, deregulations, and anti-sciencee rhetoric. So Biden will need to submit something truly ambitious, and much stronger than what was done under the Obama administration. It will be important that they not only make an ambitious plan but that they show immediate progress towards justice centered emissions reductions. Their NDC will likely be based around Biden’s climate plan, which does look ambitious, and what they submit to the UNFCCC will need to be compatible with giving us the best possible chance of staying below 1.5℃ of warming in order to show that they are fully committed to justice and climate action. 

Rejoining the Paris Agreement is a necessary step for the US to get back on track with the international effort to address climate change. However we will need to watch closely over the next few months to see what the submitted NDC looks like and what concrete steps are being taken immediately to put those plans into action. 

For now, let’s celebrate this win and do all we can to ensure that this is successful!

References:
Le Quéré, C., Jackson, R.B., Jones, M.W. et al. Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 647–653 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-0797-x

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