The Paris Agreement: will it help tackle climate change?

Since the Paris Climate Agreement we're still on track for a catastrophic 3°C of global warming – or more.
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By Phil Byrne    |      Published:  12 Dec 2017    |      7 minute read

What is the Paris Climate Agreement?

The Paris Agreement aims to stop dangerous levels of climate change and prevent lives being destroyed by extreme weather. It’s also known as the Paris Climate Accord, Paris Climate Agreement and Paris Climate Deal.

World leaders shook on the text during the Paris climate talks in December 2015. The signing was a historic moment. 195 delegates agreeing for the first time to take collective action to combat climate change.

It officially came into force on 4 November 2016. So far, 158 parties have ratified the deal. These include the UK, EU, US, China and India. However, President Trump is pulling the US out of the deal.

Signatories agree to keep the global temperature rise well below 2°C – and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°: the temperature that gives us the best chance of limiting impacts to levels that people and nature can cope with. We’ve already hit over 1° of warming, leading to melting sea-ice, 50° heatwaves and flooding.

The Agreement also compels nations to address the loss and damage caused by climate impacts. And it commits finance to help developing countries tackle and adapt to climate change.

What is the background to the Paris Agreement?

World leaders first acted on climate change in 1992. They adopted The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The UNFCCC doesn’t set binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions. Nor is it able to enforce action. Instead it sets the rules for negotiating treaties like the Paris Agreement. These treaties strengthen its aim to prevent dangerous climate change.

197 parties have signed up to the UNFCCC. And from 1995, they have met annually at Conferences of the Parties (COP) to assess how they are doing. Milestones leading up to the Paris Agreement include:

  • The Kyoto Protocol – in 1997, parties agree to specific targets to reduce key greenhouse gas emissions. The Protocol enters into force in 2005.
  • Bali Road Map (2007) – a mandate is set up to focus on mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology transfer and capacity building.
  • Lima Call for Climate Action (2014) – work starts on the negotiating text for the Paris Agreement.
  • December 2015 saw the Paris Agreement signed. 2016 saw it ratified. Countries now need to scale up their action to meet its goals.

What does the Paris Agreement say?

It “aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change” by:

  • Mitigation – cutting emissions to keep below the warming goal.
  • Adaptation – preparing for unavoidable damaging impacts.
  • Finance – helping poorer countries do the same, and compensating them for unavoidable loss and damage.

The climate deal commits parties to peak emissions as soon as possible, and then make rapid reductions using the best available science. It recognises that rich countries need to peak their emissions before developing countries. This is because rich countries have a greater historical responsibility for climate change – and are more capable of tackling it.

The next two climate talks (COP 23 and 24) will decide the Paris Rulebook, which will describe how these targets will be met.

Does the Paris Agreement go far enough?

No. It still leaves millions of people across the world under threat from climate-related floods, droughts and superstorms.

It’s a voluntary agreement. Parties must take necessary efforts – but there is no obligation to keep global warming below 1.5°C, or even 2°C.

We need countries to cut emissions rapidly and deeply. Instead, the new deal agrees to peak emissions “as soon as possible”. We can only pump so much more into the atmosphere before rising above 1.5° warming. At the current rate, we’ve got less than 10 years. Without drastically cutting emissions by 2020, we’ve got no chance of meeting the warming target.

Let’s put it in context. Even if all parties met their current levels of ambition – which they clearly don’t have to – it would still add up to over 3° of warming. That’s catastrophic climate change.

You would also expect a clear steer on how, when and who should finance life-saving measures to lessen the threat of climate change. But the language is vague. The Paris Agreement simply refers to a “finance flow”. There is no obligation for rich countries to provide funding for poorer nations. Don’t forget, rich countries are largely responsible for the backlog of climate changing emissions lingering in the atmosphere. But this deal allows them to keep evading liability.

Many developing countries need serious financial and technological support to cut their emissions. Something that rich countries are remaining very quiet about, or even trying to backtrack on. The agreement doesn’t address this problem.

Let’s be clear: good politicians will use Paris to boost action at home. But Paris allows bad politicians the space to go home, get good publicity and then do nothing.

Do these sort of agreements produce action?

Yes, but not without massive pressure from people, charities, businesses and others.

Remember, the Paris Agreement isn’t legally binding. If countries stick to their current targets, it’ll add up to a planet-burning 3+ degrees of warming. There is also little sign of the financial support agreed for developing countries. Without it, they can’t develop a low-carbon economy or cope with growing climate impacts.

People power can force governments to live up to their promises in the Agreement. That’s the beauty of the Paris deal. Now we have something to hold them to. But we need to do it fast. The period before 2020 is critical. If we miss this window, scientists say it is increasingly unlikely that we can prevent temperatures breaching 1.5°C.

What was Friends of the Earth's role in the Paris Agreement?

Persuading world leaders to include a 1.5°C warming target in the Agreement was a huge victory.

It was a victory for climate justice groups like Friends of the Earth – and our sister groups around the world who represent some of the worst-hit victims of climate change. Christiana Figueres, a former executive director of the UNFCCC, credits civil society campaigning for the target.

We stood with sister organisations alongside poorer countries. And we made sure that richer nations didn’t bully them into accepting weak deals. Some developed countries wanted no mention of their greater responsibility for causing the climate crisis.

We also campaigned for richer countries to:

  • ramp up their efforts to tackle climate change;
  • help poorer countries develop clean economies;
  • compensate poorer countries for loss and damage caused by climate change.

We played a big role in keeping loss and damage on the agenda. This was despite lots of countries attempting to ignore it.

What else needs to be done?

Climate change could displace up to 200 million people by 2050. That’s nearly 1 in every 30 people in the world. Millions are already losing their homes and livelihoods because of droughts, floods and superstorms.

Currently there is no international protection or support for these climate refugees.

Friends of the Earth is calling on the international community to launch a climate refugee protocol. The world needs to say, “We welcome climate refugees”.

The promises in the Paris Agreement need to be more than just words on paper. Existing emission targets aren’t nearly good enough. They would push us up to over 3° of warming – well beyond the 1.5 target.

Carrying on as we are will see us use up our entire emissions quota in less than 10 years. We need governments to drastically cut emissions before 2020 and commit to keeping coal, oil and gas in the ground.

Who has signed the Paris Agreement?

195 out of 197 parties originally approved the Agreement.

Syria didn’t sign because it was at war and therefore unable to attend the negotiations. Nicaragua was the only party in attendance that didn’t sign. It was an act of protest. The Central American nation refused to agree to what it saw as a weak and unfair deal. Donald Trump has since moved to pull the US out of the Agreement.

Who has ratified the Paris Agreement?

158 parties have gone on to ratify the deal and commit to its goals. Members include the UK, EU, China and India. The US had ratified it before Trump went back on the deal.

The Paris Agreement entered into force on 4 November 2016. This happened when at least 55 parties – responsible for at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions – ratified the new climate deal.

What does Donald Trump’s approach mean for the Paris Agreement?

Thanks to rich countries like the US, the Paris Agreement fell far short of the legally-binding and justice-based deal needed – even before Trump pulled out of it.

The US president said Paris was a bad deal for the US. In fact quite the opposite is true. It represents a really good deal for richer nations. They’re allowed to pledge whatever emissions-reduction they want. They don’t have to achieve that target. Current pledges add up to more than 3° of warming. The ambition in the Agreement is 1.5°. And there is no mention of them financing poorer countries to adapt to the climate crisis – a crisis they are historically responsible for.

Clearly there were already challenges before the US u-turn. The deal alone was never going to stop catastrophic levels of climate change. Its main strength is enabling global cooperation. It will need people power – and lots of it – to fully realise its ambition. Luckily lots of Americans, states and cities are keen to keep going with climate action in spite of Trump.

There is no denying that Trump is a disaster story for the climate. But previous US administrations haven’t fared much better.

The largest greenhouse gas emitter in history, the US has been a constant thorn in the side of climate progress. It has weakened every negotiation it’s participated in – from the Kyoto Protocol, which it didn’t even ratify, right up to the Paris Agreement.

What does the Paris Agreement commit the UK to?

The Paris deal commits the UK to make efforts to limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C. That means raising our ambition which is currently focused on 2°. All need to increase their ambition.

The UK has made progress. Its greenhouse emissions were 38% below 1990 levels in 2015. But we’re still way off-track when it comes to the Paris goals. We’re taking too big a slice of the global emissions pie, leaving small pickings for developing countries. These poorer nations are historically less responsible for climate change – and they’re not as capable of taking action as countries like the UK are.

Put simply we need to tighten our targets and get serious about:

  • Energy efficiency – insulate the UK’s poor quality housing.
  • Illegal levels of air pollution – drastically lower traffic emissions.
  • Fossil fuels – keep the majority of coal, oil and gas reserves in the ground.
  • Fracking – ban drilling for new fossil fuels.
  • North Sea oil and gas – move jobs and industry into North Sea renewables.
  • Low-carbon industry – shift to high-tech infrastructure like smart grids and battery storage.
  • Renewable energy – move to a fully renewable electricity sector by 2030.
  • Aviation – ban expansion and use fair taxing to make cleaner transport cheaper.
  • Meat and dairy – promote plant-rich diets and stop subsidising factory farming.