The Paris Agreement is the world’s first comprehensive climate agreement adopted in 2015 by almost every nation on Earth that promotes a global consensus on addressing the climate crisis. But what does it actually propose, and five years on, how much progress has been made? 

Back in 2015, at COP21 in Paris, countries of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreed to accelerate and intensify the actions needed for a sustainable global future. The Agreement sets out a framework for limiting global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius or ‘well below 2 degrees’ above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. Global temperatures have already risen 1 degree and predictions for 2.7 degrees warming or more would have catastrophic environmental, social and economic impacts. The Agreement also asks countries to become carbon neutral by no later than the second half of this century. 

Under the Agreement, each signatory country submits their own plan for emissions reductions, called a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), in line with the overall targets. These include committing to improve financial preparedness against impacts of the climate crisis alongside directing finance flows to projects which align with lower GHG emissions. In line with evidence that less developed countries that contribute minimally to global warming are likely to be the most severely affected by the climate crisis, the Paris Agreement makes recommendations for developed countries to assist developing nations develop climate adaptation and mitigation strategies, committing a combined US$100bn a year.

The Paris Agreement opened for signature on 22 April 2016 and entered into force on 4th November 2016 after the threshold of 55 signatory countries accounting for 55% of emissions was met. As of 2020, all UNFCCC members have signed the Agreement, with 189 (representing around 90% of global emissions) gaining formal approval on their climate proposals. The only significant emitters which are not parties are Iran and Turkey, ranking 8th and 20th in the world respectively for GHG emissions. 

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The Paris Agreement Map

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Figure 1: What percentage of the world’s emissions are covered by the Paris Agreement, and who has submitted what? (Source: The Carbon Brief). 

The Paris Agreement requires all Parties to report on emissions and efforts towards climate change mitigation, with their NDCs being updated every five years. The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed this year’s COP26 talks, where updated NDCs would have been announced and the Paris Agreement would officially come into effect, until 2021. Alok Sharma, COP26 President and Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, summarises the UK’s aims for COP26: 

it is hoped that the postponement of the COP26 talks will not dissuade countries from continuing to prioritise climate plans, given the imperative nature of tough climate plans. Marianne Karlsen, chair of UN Climate Change’s implementation body, argues the postponement ‘doesn’t take away the pressure’ for countries to submit increased NDCs by the end of this year. According to speakers on a recent OECD-WWF hosted webinar, the delay offers governments a crucial window to improve and ensure plans are better aligned with efforts for a green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

How Close are We to Meeting Any of These Commitments? 

The Climate Action Tracker (CAT) covers 80% of global emissions and assesses countries based on how likely their Paris commitments will achieve the 1.5 degrees target. “If all governments meet their Paris Agreement target, we calculate the world would still see 3 C of warming, but that warming is likely to be even higher given most are not taking enough action to meet their targets”, says Bill Hare, CEO of Climate Analytics, one of the CAT’s organisations. what is the paris agreement?

Figure 2: The Climate Action Tracker map (Source: Climate Action Tracker).

Morocco is one of only two countries with climate mitigation plans consistent with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. The country’s National Energy Strategy calls for generating 42% of its electricity from renewables by the end of 2020 (which they are on track to achieve) and 52% by 2030. 

At the other end of the scale is the USA, with the CAT describing its Paris targets as ‘critically insufficient’. In 2017, President Trump announced his plan to withdraw the USA from the Paris Agreement. This is especially worrying given the USA is the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide globally, the leading cause of global warming. Fortunately, the laws of the Agreement state the earliest date of withdrawal is November 2020, just after the Presidential election results are due, so the future of the Paris Agreement, and wider global climate action, is yet to be confirmed. Showing their disregard for Trump’s climate change denial, thousands of leaders across America have sought to reflect the will of the majority of who support the aims of the Paris Agreement. 

Slightly more positive action comes from China, who have committed to levelling off their carbon emissions by 2030 at the very latest, whilst India has committed to generating 40% of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030. Part of India’s pledge also sees the creation of a carbon sink area of 2.5 to 3 billion tons of CO2 equivalent by 2030. This action is crucial, and cannot come with much delay- a worldwide failure to meet the current targets could reduce global GDP by more than 25% by 2100.  

The Paris Agreement is a powerful and influential force in the fight against the climate crisis. But there is still a long way to go, and urgent action must be taken if we are to meet the 1.5 degrees target. A lot will be revealed at the end of the year given the upcoming deadline for the upgraded NDCs.