Paris Agreement: What it is, why it matters - and what's going wrong

·Contributor
·5 min read

In 2015, almost 200 countries agreed to an ambitious goal to limit climate change, known as the Paris Agreement or Paris Accord

The agreement, signed by 191 nations in the French capital at the UN COP21 climate conference, commits its signatories to limiting temperature rises this century.

Signatories agree to keeping temperature increases "well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels".

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The agreement marked the end of more than two decades of negotiations among the international community after the first warnings of climate change and how it would impact the environment

Todd Stern, a climate envoy to President Barack Obama who had spent years on striking the agreement, recollected to the Guardian in 2020: "The story of climate negotiations had so often been one of disappointment. And yet here we were and we knew that we had – all together – done a really big thing. A very special moment. An unforgettable one."

So, what's gone right - and wrong - with it?

What are the goals of the Paris Agreement?

To achieve the goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5C, global carbon emissions need to be halved by 2030 and reach ‘net zero’ (where emissions are balanced by carbon absorbed by plants and carbon-capture technology) by 2050. 

A rise of 1.5C is considered important, because above that level, there will be more heatwaves, extreme weather events, droughts and greater economic losses.

If countries continue on their current path, the world will see sea levels rising more than two feet by 2100, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

Thick, dark smoke rises from chimneys in front of a clear sky with bright sunshine
Limiting greenhouse gas emissions is the key goal of the Paris Agreement (Getty)

The impacts of climate change are already being felt around the world, with the UN attributing extreme weather events to human-induced climate change. 

NASA says, ‘More than one-fifth of all humans live in regions that have already seen warming greater than 1.5 degrees Celsius in at least one season. 

‘Climate-related risks were found to be generally higher at lower latitudes and for disadvantaged people and communities.’

What has gone wrong since the agreement was signed? 

Despite the pledges at the Paris accord, carbon emissions continue to rise - and so far, many countries have failed to agree goals which will allow them to hit Paris targets. 

Annual emissions in 2015 were around 50 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas, but by 2019, they had risen to about 55 billion tonnes. 

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Despite all efforts made so far, the world's emissions of greenhouse gases - mostly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels such as gas, oil, coal, diesel or gasoline - are still rising, despite a drop last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

And even the Paris Agreement leaves much to negotiate about how much of the burden of reducing emissions will fall in particular to major economies, such as China, India and Brazil, that have industrialised only relatively recently.

Which countries pose a problem to the Paris Agreement? 

While working towards net zero, countries are also encouraged to set out intermediate targets for cutting their greenhouse gas emissions.

These are measured in terms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) in order to include other greenhouse gases such as methane, produced notably by cattle, garbage dumps and the fossil fuel industry.

However, national targets are varied and hard to compare with one another.

U.S. President Donald Trump pinches his fingers together to refer to 'small' amounts of temperature change as he announces his decision that the United States will withdraw from the landmark Paris Climate Agreement, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque  TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the landmark Paris Climate Agreement (Reuters)

The United States has said it aims to cut its emissions by 50-52% from 2005 levels by 2030.

The European Union, as a bloc one of the world's three biggest economies along with China and the US, has promised it will cut its net emissions by 55% from 1990 levels by the same date.

Japan's target is a 46% cut from 2013 levels by 2030.

China has pledged to start reducing its CO2 emissions around 2030.

However, dozens of countries have still not submitted revised emissions goals (known as nationally determined contributions or NDCs) in advance of the COP26 conference in Glasgow this October, and these include some of the world’s worst polluters. 

China, India, Saudi Arabia and Turkey - responsible for around a third of global greenhouse gas emissions - have yet to come forward with new emissions goals.

Of additional concern is the fact that the targets are still at the whim of international leaders - most notably in America recently.

In June 2017, President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from participation in the 2015 Paris Agreement, which took effect on November 4, 2020.

President Joe Biden signed an executive order to rejoin the agreement in January 2021.

How does the Paris Agreement relate to COP26?

This year is the deadline for countries to agree to steeper pledges to cut emissions, known as NDCs.

But so far, the pledges made by Paris signatories are not enough to achieve the necessary drop in carbon emissions. 

Analysis by the UN of the new NDCs received by July found that, by 2030, the 113 countries would lower emissions by 12% from levels in 2010 (compared to the 50% drop needed to hit Paris goals).  

Overall, the existing NDCs of all 191 signatories mean that carbon emissions will actually rise by 16% by 2030. 

There is also disagreement between rich and poor countries, with developed nations failing to meet pledges to help developing countries deal with the impacts of climate change.

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Rich countries are failing to meet a $100 billion a year goal pledged in 2009: data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows that in 2019, developed nations' governments raised just $79.6 billion for vulnerable countries.

Progress to negotiate Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, covering carbon trading and carbon markets, broke down at the last talks. 

It has not yet been resolved. 

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