Originally published on theclimatelemon.com

Yay for the Paris Agreement!… Wait. What actually is that?

If you’ve read anything much about climate issues, you’ve probably come across the term ‘Paris Agreement’ – aka ‘Paris Accord’, ‘Paris Climate Treaty’, ‘Paris Climate Deal’ or simply the ‘2015 climate deal’. Like a lot of climate lingo, it isn’t immediately obvious. This post will explain the Paris Agreement in simple terms. As a global diplomatic agreement which was 40 years in the making, there’s a lot of intricacies that we won’t be able to cover here. But this is the gist of it.

So, enough chit chat. What actually is it?

The Paris Agreement is a binding international agreement, led by the UN, that the global community will work together to limit climate change to less than 2 degrees of warming, compared to pre-industrial levels.

2 degrees has long been seen as the safety limit, above which climate change would be likely to spin out of control. The Agreement states that we will also “pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5 degrees” – a much tougher goal, but a much safer and fairer one (more on that later). Over 100 nations have ratified the Agreement, covering over 75% of global carbon emissions. The Agreement was hashed out at an UN conference in December 2015 and came into force on 4th November 2016.

It’s seen as such a big deal because the UN has been calling conferences on how to deal with the threat of climate change for the best part of four decades, and they’ve always failed, until this one. There’s so many vested interests and conflicting views and different national priorities that it’s next to impossible to get everyone to agree. While there are many weak spots, the Agreement is a big achievement because it’s the world’s first global and binding climate deal.

The key highlights

Apart from the headline goal of staying below 2 degrees, here’s some of the key highlights.

(If you want to check out the official text, be my guest. To be honest it makes The Silmarillion look as readable as The Very Hungry Caterpillar, so good luck).

  • We’ll be effectively net zero carbon by 2100

    There’s a statement that carbon emissions must be no higher than absorption by the environment by 2100, but no clear deadline for when fossil fuels must be phased out. This could mean carbon pollution continues far in to the future, as long as there are enough forests and other natural ecosystems to absorb it (known as ‘carbon sinks’). Only problem is, by the end of the century is waaay too far away. To limit warming to 2C we must keep around 80% of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground – and of course even more for the tighter 1.5C target. Still, this is the first time we’ve had a global target to get to a post-carbon society.

  • We’ll ramp up ambition every five years

    There is going to be a review mechanism, where every five years the world’s nations will ”take stock” of their collective progress, and ramp up climate commitments, with the first official one in 2023. This is crucial because so far the national climate action plans are only sufficient to limit global warming to 2.7C – a dangerous level. This was a major sticking point, with large developing nations – notably India and China – opposed to ramping up their contributions so soon. It’s good news this is included in the text. Also, nations are “encouraged” to revisit their climate plans in 2018, before they take effect in 2020.

  • Irreversible climate damage gets lip service

    The thorny issue of loss and damage is included – kind of. The most climate-vulnerable states have been adamant that they will suffer some irreversible impacts that cannot be mitigated nor adapted to. For example, losing part of their country to sea level rise, mass deaths and forced migrations, the inability to continue growing a staple crop. The have passionately, and rightly, demanded they must have some form of compensation from the rich nations for these losses – in addition to the finance mobilised for mitigation and adaptation (which is for things like renewable energy and flood defences).

    The rich nations, especially the USA, have opposed these calls. The American government have been terrified of any language denoting legal liability, because if the deal leaves American companies or the American government open to being sued on climate grounds, the climate-denying corporate-loving Republicans will block the deal and we’ll all be screwed. The final draft includes the principle of loss and damage and says something must be done about it, but clarifies this action cannot be through legal liability. This isn’t fair. But it is pragmatic.

  • Target confirmed for $100 billion in yearly climate finance

    As previously agreed, the rich countries will provide at least $100 billion a year of climate finance to the developing world, in a ”transparent” manner. How exactly this will be done is still being worked out. It’s very important that the word ”transparent” was used, but it should have gone further. This was a sticking point in the negotiation, as many of the richer nations claimed that nearly $60 billion had already been mobilised, but many developing nations claimed this was not true. They said the calculations were not clear, and that the figure includes loans and the double-counting of finance already provided for other reasons. This is a valid objection.

    I know for sure that my own county, the UK, was doing this. Cameron’s government pledged to redirect our whole aid budget to climate finance. As many of the countries that would be receiving standard development aid are the same ones that will be getting climate finance, our pledge amounts to almost nothing. It’s highly likely other countries are doing the same and it’s totally out of order.

    The rich countries have the historical responsibility for causing this mess – the least we can do is help poorer countries transition and adapt. Anyway, this point is right to be included but it should be stronger.

  • Only voluntary action until 2020

    The Agreement “encourages” voluntary climate action in the years running up to 2020– when this deal will take effect. It is not good enough to wait until then before doing anything, so I sincerely hope countries start early. The good news is momentum is still running high from getting the Agreement into force within a year, which is earlier than expected. The text “decides” (sounds better than the other funky verbs flying around the document) that the period 2016-2020 will see a “technical examination process” around clean technology transfer. That sounds promising, if vague.

  • We need cities and businesses to step up to the plate

    The Agreement “urges” nations to work with “non-state actors” (anything that isn’t a whole country, e.g. a city, county, business, university, community group, NGO etc))to ramp up action prior to 2020, and beyond.  It also looks like non-state actors are going to be relied on to bridge the gap between what the national climate plans can achieve, and what we need to stay under 2 degrees. The good news is 450 cities made climate pledges at the 2015 climate summit. 165 local governments have pledged to get to net zero carbon by 2050, and 90 major cities (covering 25% of world GDP) have joined the C40 climate action program.  I’ll write more about that in other posts as it deserves more attention. Spoiler: Copenhagen wins most ambitious prize, pledging to completely decarbonise by 2025!


  • It’s legally binding. Sort of…

    Although the Agreement is described as legally binding, it’s actually only true to a certain extent. Basically, it is now international law that every country which has ratified the Agreement has to submit a climate action plan every five years, and each plan has to be more ambitious than the last. Great. But here’s the thing: actually implementing the plans is not a legal requirement. As the plans will be submitted to international scrutiny at the regular UN climate summits, the idea is that the motivation to be seen as a climate leader rather than being shamed on the world stage will be enough to get everyone to comply. I’m not convinced. But unfortunately several countries – including China and the USA, the two largest emitters – promised to reject the deal if specific emissions cuts were legally binding. So what we got was an imperfect compromise.

How is it different to other attempted climate deals?

It’s novel in two main ways.

One, it covers all countries in more or less the same way, while previous agreements (such as the Kyoto Protocol of 1997) had two distinct categories for developed and developing nations, with only the developed ones being required to make emissions cuts. That approach became unfeasible when the larger developing countries started supercharging their pollution. It also gave sceptics in the rich countries a great excuse to drag their heels. (“Not fair! Why should we do anything when China doesn’t have to?”).

Two, the process started with each country being asked to produce  national climate action plans, called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs – what a mouthful!) which together forms the bones of a global action plan to actually implement the Agreement. The idea got a lot of buy-in from countries that may have resisted the process otherwise, and it allows plans to be nationally relevant (e.g. many poorer countries said they’d plant forests, rather than cutting down on their small and vital energy use). However the problem with the ‘what can you do’ as opposed to the ‘this is what you need to do’ model, is that when all the plans were in, they didn’t add up to enough to stay below 2 degrees. Scientists who analysed the plans said if they’re all implemented to the letter (in itself a big if) then we’re on track for 2.7 degrees of warming. Ouch.

So, will it be effective or not?

It’s hard to say. The good news is, this is the closest we’ve ever got to a workable global action plan. All the major polluters are on board, climate action is getting more mainstream every day, and the renewable energy revolution is snowballing so fast it’s probably got a critical mass of its own now.

The bad news? We’ve already hit 1C of global warming, and even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, there’s a good chance that could climb to 1.5C – or even more. The reason is because carbon doesn’t just do its business and then piss off, it hangs out in the atmosphere for ages – up to a century. There’s a delay between carbon pollution and the climate change it causes. Essentially, we’re always dealing with the impacts of what we did about 50 years ago.

Staying below 2C is a HUGE challenge. But it is physically possible. Although the climate is already changing, but we still have time to avoid that worst bits.

The other good news is that many of the actions needed to reach net zero carbon are also good for society in other ways. There’s plenty of win-wins and win-win-wins to be had. The rest of the posts on this blog explore those opportunities!

Here’s some quotes from the experts

I’m a climate blogger, not a scientist or NGO leader. Let’s hear from some people who should know.

“This marks the end of the era of fossil fuels. There is no way to meet the targets laid out in this agreement without keeping coal, oil and gas in the ground,”
May Boeve, Executive Director of 350.org


“We have witnessed something incredible today. Finally, we can feel hopeful that we are on a path to tackling climate change,”
Tim Flannery, scientist and conservationist, The Climate Council

“It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”
James Hansen, climate scientist and author

Quick note on that one: sadly, he’s probably right. So it’s lucky that fossil fuels won’t be the cheapest energy source for much longer.

“The fact that we got an agreement with a temperature target, with a commitment to a direction of travel, with a commitment to improving and enhancing the financing that’s going to be necessary to meet that direction, I’m pretty optimistic about it,”
Nigel Arnell, climate scientist at University of Reading

What’s next for the Paris Agreement?

The Paris Agreement is actually ahead of schedule. It passed into force less than a year after the original agreement, which was faster than anyone expected. A promising start! But what next?

There was a climate summit in November 2016, in Marrakech, Morocco, and there will be one each year (next up is May 2017 in Bonn, Germany). But the next big one won’t be until 2018. Until then, the aim of the game will be to iron out all the vague language in the Paris Agreement and decide on rules for transparency and reporting. This administrative stuff will be known as the ‘Paris Rulebook’. It’s not very sexy (unless you find legislative small-print sexy!?) but it’s bound to have important repercussions for its overall effectiveness.

As the Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions elegantly puts it:

“In the long evolutionary arc of the U.N. climate effort, Marrakech was an important transitional moment, pivoting from the years of negotiation that produced the Paris Agreement to a new phase focused on implementation.”

Bring on the implementation!

Featured image: Celebrating the signing of the Paris Agreement. Credit: UNclimatechange / Flickr, Creative Commons

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