What is the Paris Agreement?

On December 12, 2015, representatives of 197 countries met in Paris and adopted the first binding climate agreement that obligated nearly all nations on Earth to undertake ambitious efforts to curb greenhouse gases and address the impacts of global warming.

The accord was a landmark because negotiators overcame the monumental challenge that had stymied progress for two decades: How to share responsibility for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions fairly among rich and poor nations.

Fast-growing China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia refused to agree to the same targets and timetables as industrialized nations like the United States and European countries,  which had built their wealth with the help of fossil fuels since the start of the Industrial Revolution. And the United States—which historically has contributed more greenhouse gas pollution than any other nation—would not sign on to any deal that did not require emissions cuts by rapidly developing countries like China and India that would be leading emitters in the decades ahead. The 1997 Kyoto protocol failed because of this standoff.

For the 21st annual round of climate negotiations ending in Paris in 2015, legacy-minded U.S. President Barack Obama and his negotiators pushed for a deal that obliged every country—no matter its stage of economic development—to contribute to a climate solution. But in order to win buy-in from all countries, the agreement was crafted without enforceable targets. Each nation would determine its own contribution and timetable.

Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist and director of the Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment at Princeton University, said that because of the lack of mandates, the Paris agreement could be seen as a step backward, signaling countries’ lack of commitment. But in another sense, it reflects the years of work to design a system that could get countries to cut emissions, despite the political challenges.

“The Paris agreement formalized this new way of looking at climate agreements,”  Oppenheimer said. The idea was that a “name and shame” process, public announcement of goals and critical review by other countries, would push nations in the direction of actually setting credible goals and making a reasonable attempt to meet them.

The Paris Agreement that resulted was grounded in the original United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change signed at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio.; it was not a “treaty” that created new international legal obligations. Obama could sign it into force instead of having to send it to the Senate for ratification. Although the original UN convention passed by a voice vote in 1992, getting two-thirds of Senators to ratify any international climate treaty had become unimaginable in a Congress with increasingly acrimonious partisan divisions.

“If we follow through on the commitments that this agreement embodies, history may well judge it as a turning point for our planet,” Obama said, upon signing the Paris accord. 

The first pledges nations made under the accord fell well short of the action needed to meet the Paris goal of limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius. But negotiators envisioned that nations would ratchet up their ambition over time, with new pledges at least every five years.

Oppenheimer said it is too early to say if the Paris approach will be successful. “It may take until the end of this decade until we can tell,” he said. “The real issue is how committed are the governments of the important emitting countries, the U.S., China, the EU, Russia, Japan, and India, to making emissions reductions—not just making up targets, but implementing those targets as firmly as is under their control.” 

Marianne Lavelle

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