On December 12, 2015, in Paris, 195 governments agreed to the text of the most significant global climate agreement in history. Known as the Paris Agreement, the international deal commits nearly every country in the world to lowering greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to curb the dangerous effects of climate change.

The Paris Agreement, which entered into force on November 4, 2016, aims to prevent global temperatures from rising above pre–Industrial Revolution temperatures by 2˚C (3.6˚F). Ideally, the Paris Agreement strives to limit global temperature increases to 1.5˚C (2.7˚F), as scientists caution that the effects of temperatures rising any higher would be catastrophic and potentially irreversible.

Scientists focus on the Industrial Revolution because it marks the time when human activities began releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in massive quantities. Since then, global temperatures have risen by nearly 1˚C (1.8˚F), and scientists predict that this may increase to between 2°C and 6°C in the next century. Global temperatures have fluctuated throughout the earth’s history, but the current pace of change is unprecedented. NASA estimates that the rate of global warming over the next century will be twenty times faster than historic averages, which is cause for serious concern.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Temperature Change

Under the Paris Agreement, all countries share responsibility.

Past climate agreements—most notably the Kyoto Protocol, the most significant climate accord before the Paris Agreement—mandated that countries reduce their emissions by particular standards. It placed the responsibility of climate change—and the obligation to fix it—on developed countries, which historically have emitted the most greenhouse gases. For example, the legally binding Kyoto Protocol initially required the European Union to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 8 percent while not asking for any reduction from dozens of less-developed countries.

But the Paris Agreement revolutionized climate politics by changing the model of negotiations. Now, all countries voluntarily set their goals based on their economic abilities. To achieve this, countries put forward individual plans known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), which outline their proposed emissions reductions and adaptation strategies.

Unlike previous climate agreements, the Paris Agreement is entirely voluntary. This means that while the agreement requires every country to submit an NDC plan, there are no stipulations as to what ways and by how much countries should cut emissions. Countries’ plans can differ significantly, varying with regard to their specific goals, levels of ambition, and even how they measure emissions cuts. 

The Paris Agreement central aim is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, unfccc.int

Understanding national pledges

In 2014, the top ten emitters of greenhouse gases accounted for more than two-thirds of global emissions. However, according to independent, scientific monitors of the Paris Agreement, such as Climate Action Tracker, India is the only top ten emitter whose pledges, long-term emissions targets, and current policies are compatible with the Paris Agreement. The world’s nine other top emitters are not on track to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping global temperature increases well below 2˚C. Understanding what sets India apart is critical to tracking the Paris Agreement.

India’s NDC revolves around a reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions, the creation of additional forests, and a shift toward renewable energy sources. By 2030, India plans for 40 percent of its power generation to come from renewable energy sources such as solar. As the third-largest national emitter of greenhouse gases, India has already taken steps in this direction: investments in renewables surpassed fossil fuel investments in 2017. 

There are challenges, however: most notably a continued reliance on coal-fired power plants as well as a growing population—with increasing energy demands—poised to become the world’s largest potentially in the next decade.

Where India is setting the tone for responsible climate policy, Russia is doing the opposite. Russia is the only top ten emitter that has yet to secure domestic political approval—also known as ratification—for the Paris Agreement (the United States plans to withdraw its ratification and leave the Paris Agreement in 2020). Ratification negotiations are ongoing in Russia but do not seem promising, as the country’s stance toward climate change policy has changed. In 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin cautioned that “the quality of life of all people on the planet depends on solving the climate problem.” Just two years later, however, the Russian president adopted a different position, denying the significant role humans have played in contributing to climate change. Because of these changing views, no real progress has been made toward responsible climate policy in Russia, and the pledges Russia has made are either vague or weak and ultimately unlikely to meaningfully reduce its emissions.

Rather than reducing emissions and focusing on the root cause of climate change, Russia appears to be responding to climate-related disasters as they arise. This strategy of adaptation could prove prohibitively expensive in the long run as climate disasters increase in frequency on a rapidly warming planet. If all countries followed Russia’s example, rises in global temperature could far exceed 2˚C, potentially reaching even 4˚C. 

The United States withdraws

The United States announced its decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in June 2017 despite originally helping to lead negotiations to draft the agreement. President Donald J. Trump, who often ridiculed the science behind climate change and promised to boost the heavily greenhouse gas–emitting coal industry, claimed that the Paris Agreement would cost the United States jobs. His decision to withdraw the United States, which will go into effect in 2020, will leave the United States as the only country in the world that is completely outside the Paris Agreement.

The significance of the U.S. decision to leave the Paris Agreement should not be understated, especially given that the United States is the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter. The country’s promised emissions cuts accounted for approximately 20 percent of total global cuts projected under the Paris Agreement. However, even with the United States’ 2015 pledge, the country did not appear to be on track to limit global warming to well below 2˚C. However, at the current rate, the United States could be contributing to a drastically warmer planet.

U.S. Emission Projections

Compare the U.S. Paris Agreement pledge to current projections.

In the absence of a commitment from the federal government, individual states are attempting to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goals. The U.S. Climate Alliance formed immediately following the Trump administration’s June 2017 announcement to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. As of March 2019, this coalition comprises twenty-two states as well as Puerto Rico, representing more than 50 percent of the U.S. population. Together, these state-level carbon reduction plans are ambitious, but it appears unlikely that they will fully reach the level of the United States’ initial Paris pledge.

The future of the Paris Agreement

As it currently stands, existing NDCs are not enough to achieve the Paris Agreement’s objective. Many of them are vague, unclear, and short, missing important details on how the country plans to actually tackle climate change. So far, the voluntary pledges made by governments would only limit global warming to 3˚C by the year 2100, well above the 2˚C goal.

Fortunately, the Paris Agreement does have provisions for a “ratchet mechanism,” designed so that NDCs grow more aggressive over time. Every government that agreed to the Paris Agreement is required to either update or submit a new NDC, at minimum, every five years. Each subsequent NDC must be more ambitious than the last—in other words, the updated plans must ratchet up the stringency of emissions targets and other actions.

While the Paris Agreement is not perfect, it is significant because it is the first major climate agreement of its kind, and it represents a global step toward resolving an issue that greatly affects the entire world. The Paris Agreement is a historic first step, but it can not be the last.

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