On December 12, 2015, the world embarked on an ambitious plan to tackle climate change. It was called the Paris Climate Agreement, and as the first global climate agreement in history, it created an unprecedented consensus that climate change was real and must be stopped.
As of June of 2017, 195 parties have signed the Paris Agreement, representing nearly all the nations of Earth (with the notable exceptions of Nicaragua, who felt the agreement didn’t go far enough, and Syria, who was busy having a civil war). It was a historic achievement to have all countries, from tiny island nations to wealthy super powers, come together to coordinate their efforts in the fight against climate change.
And then, on June 1st, the most powerful nation of all announced its intention to withdraw from the Agreement, putting it into jeopardy.
But what is the Paris Climate Agreement? How does it work, and why is it such a big deal for one nation to remove itself?
Here’s what you need to know about the Paris Accord.
What does it do?
At its core, the Paris Agreement has 3 central aims.
First is “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.” What those efforts are will vary from country to country, but generally speaking it will mean a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions - the leading cause of global warming.
Second is “increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production.” This one’s a bit more wordy, and covers a lot of topics like creating lower emission power plants and genetically engineered foods that are able to survive in wetter or drier climates. It also means that signatory countries will share technology with other nations to help combat climate change.
The third goal of the Accord is “making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development." This one’s a doozy, as it involves making the very workings of capitalism work against climate change by removing subsidies from fossil fuel industries and divesting from companies that create greenhouse gasses. For many countries it may also mean the implementation of a carbon tax system to put a price on pollution.
OK, that sounds great, but how does it work?
Here’s where things get weird, at least when it comes to international law. There’s no actual rule or standard that each country must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by, and instead each signatory country creates their own individual targets called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC). What those Contributions are will vary widely by country, with some nations (such as India) setting a 33-35% reduction by 2030, while others (like China) have a target of 60-65%.
Once those targets are created they must be enacted by the signatory and reported on every 5 years. Once that target is met then a new target is set that’s ever more ambitions from the first. This principle of progressively ambitious targets is written explicitly to encourage member countries to reach zero greenhouse emissions as quickly as possible.
Countries can also cooperate with one another and pool their Nationally Determined Contributions. If it looks like India isn’t going to meet its 35% target, but China is going to exceed their 65%, then the two can agree to share their NDCs so India can still be seen as meeting their targets.
In the bizarre world of international climate diplomacy, being able to save face in this way means a lot. Since the agreement has no legally binding enforcement it works entirely on a “name and shame” system, so if a country doesn’t meet its target it loses credibility on future negotiations.
When does it start?
The Paris Agreement starts with a “global stocktake” in 2018 where each country presents their current emission levels and their Nationally Determined Contributions to reduce it.
After that it will be 5 years before the first evaluation to see how each country is doing. The first checkin is scheduled for 2023, which will also be the time that each country sets a new goal for reductions. It’ll also be an opportunity for signatories to evaluate adaptation, climate finance policies, and technological development toward greenhouse gas reductions.
But is it enough?
There are a lot of people, both in the political and scientific world, that say the Climate Accord doesn’t go far enough in combating climate change.
On the political side, the complete lack of any consequences for a country that doesn’t meet its own targets means that there’s no real “teeth” to the agreement. Most of the Accord is just affirmations, commitments, and aims directed at reducing emissions, but without any mechanism of enforcement it’s difficult to say how countries will even come close to meeting their targets.
There’s also many in the scientific community that say the 2 °C rise in global temperatures target is now just impossible to avoid. The UNEP, the United Nations agency tasked with assisting developing nations with implementing sustainable environmental policies, states that even if all countries meet their own targets that global temperatures will still rise by 3 °C. Published scientific studies have also concluded the same thing.
While it may have its failings, the Paris Agreement has first and foremost been a symbolic effort to get the world to simply agree to take action. In that regard it has certainly succeeded, but the Agreement is a fragile thing. The lack of any real rules or enforcement means the withdrawal of a larger nation, say the United States, could cause other nations to similarly withdraw, causing the whole deal to collapse.
Or maybe not. Many countries have already reaffirmed their commitment to the Agreement, and expressed their belief that US withdrawal was a mistake. Whether or not the Paris Agreement is strong enough to survive is questionable, but so far it is certainly the best chance we have of avoiding global catastrophe.