The Paris Climate Agreement: Everything You Need to Know

Tobi Morrow

The Paris Climate Agreement reflects the ambitions of 197 nations while also providing the groundwork for global climate action. Originally negotiated during the final years of the Obama administration, the U.S. withdrew from the agreement in 2020 under President Trump, and was re-entered by President Biden on his first day in office. Signed December 12, 2015 at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Paris Agreement marked a historic milestone for world leaders to recognize climate change as an active top priority. 

In 1997, the UNFCCC signed a similar international treaty called the “Kyoto Protocol,” which committed 36 developed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many speculate that Kyoto’s ultimate failure is due to the agreement’s ineffective structure, namely the exemption of developing countries, or its inability to handle the uncertainties of climate change. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement recognizes climate change as a universal issue in which all countries should share responsibility in reducing greenhouse emissions. It instituted a plan for wealthier countries to provide “climate finance” to developing countries who suffer from the effects of climate change. The agreement aims to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2 degrees above pre industrial levels. The Paris Agreement requires that all countries participate in the battle against climate change, but without the legally binding targets and penalties that the Kyoto Protocol enforced.

The accord aims to combat climate change by requiring countries to make commitments, whose metric is tracked by “nationally determined contributions,” or NDCs. The NDCs change every five years to reflect each country’s “highest possible ambition.” The U.S. initially intended to reach an economy-wide target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% below its 2005 level in 2025. Former US Special Envoy on Climate Change and President Obama’s chief climate negotiator on the Paris Agreement, Todd Stern told CBS News how “some countries pick a target that’s really easy and then they pat themselves on the back when they meet it.” Stern explained that the U.S. “took the opposite approach.” Despite President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the U.S. is still on track towards its NDC goal. However, within the five years of the agreement’s adoption, experts have decided that it is imperative to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, rather than 2 degrees. Such updates pressure the U.S. government to act with even more arduous goals. As the U.S. re-enters the climate battle and repairs the negative effect President Trump’s exit left on the U.S’s devotion to reducing emissions, President Biden releases a new goal of reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52 percent below 2005 levels in 2030.

New ambitions by the UNFCCC and partnering countries leave hope for battling climate change. Additionally, the Paris Agreement reveals the urgency of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in a light that the Kyoto Protocol failed to address. Recently, the UN Climate Change Today published a synthesis of the efforts of countries in accordance with their NDCs, which indicates “that nations must redouble their climate efforts if they are to reach the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise by 2C—ideally 1.5C—by the end of the century.” Despite increasing mitigation efforts, climate change continues furiously. As the U.S. re-enters the Paris Agreements, it’s imperative that President Biden’s bold climate pledges meaningfully accelerate the U.S. towards net zero.

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