KXAN Climate Watch: What is the Paris Climate Agreement?

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FILE – In this July 27, 2018, file photo, the Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyo. TThe U.N.’s climate chief Patricia Espinosa says deadlines set by some of the world’s top polluters to end greenhouse gas emissions, along with president-elect Joe Biden’s pledge to take the United States back into the Paris accord, have boosted hopes of meeting the pact’s ambitious goals. (AP Photo/J. David Ake, File)

This past week, the Paris Climate Agreement became a point of conversation once again as President Joe Biden re-committed the United States to the climate-focused accord. But what exactly is the Paris Climate Agreement? And what are we agreeing to?

What is it?

The Paris Climate Agreement (PCA) is a legally-binding, international treaty involving 196 nations, all with a common goal of limiting global warming to no more than 2°C (ideally, less than 1.5°C). This would be achieved by drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions, the primary driver of anthropogenic climate change. 

IN-DEPTH: The agreement was established at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) 21st ‘Conference of the Parties’ in Paris, France — hence, why it’s called the Paris Climate Agreement.

Each country sets their own specific emission targets (known as “national determined contributions”) which would be evaluated and raised every five years to further mitigation. (For example, the U.S. — the second-biggest current emitter after China — has committed to cutting overall greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025.)

To curb environmental injustice issues, the PCA also requires wealthier countries to provide support for developing countries who may be at a disadvantage financially or bear the burden of greater impacts from climate change.

Why a 2°C threshold?

The PAC’s ultimate goal is to keep the globe from warming well below 2°C. This threshold is widely accepted by most major scientific organizations to be the international standard at which climate change impacts significantly increase.

For example, according to the National Academy of Sciences, projections show warming to 2°C, compared with 1.5°C, is estimated to increase the number of people exposed to climate-related risks and poverty by up to several hundred million by 2050.

Recent analysis shows even a 2°C warming of Earth’s temperature may be too much for some countries to adapt, which is why targets have been adjusted to reflect a more aggressive goal of 1.5°C.

It’s important to note a 1.5°-2°C threshold doesn’t result in immediate catastrophe, but instead, should be thought of as a tipping point leading to irreversible change and an increased risk for negative consequences.

Many like to compare the Earth’s average temperature to that of our body temperature, that seemingly minor differences (like 1°-2°) can result in danger.

According to Climate Action Tracker, with no action or policy implementation, global temperatures are expected to rise 4.1°-4.8°C by the end of the century.

Who’s involved?

At inception, 196 countries signed the Paris Climate Agreement, including the United States. Leading up to the signing of the treaty, 187 countries responsible for more than 97% of the world’s climate pollution announced specific plans for emission cuts.

SOURCE: Germanwatch/EIA, United Nations

TOP 5 emitters (as of 2013):

  1. China – 10,281 MTCO2
  2. United States – 5,298 MTCO2
  3. EU – 3,709 MTCO2
  4. India – 2,072 MTCO2
  5. Brazil – 512 MTCO2

    *NOTE: MTCO2 = metric tons of carbon dioxide
SOURCE: Natural Resources Defense Council as of December 15, 2015

For a full list of each countries emissions and where they rank, click here.

HISTORY: The United States formally joined the agreement under former President Barack Obama in September 2016. Former President Donald Trump then pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement in November 2020. Current President Biden recently rejoined the treaty in January 2021.

Criticism

One major flaw in the agreement is the lack of enforcement of the “legally-binding” agreement. As of 2019, many of the countries were not meeting their targets, and with no ‘punishment’, the motivation to commit to initial promises comes into question. In addition, each country is allowed to decide in what ways and by how much they pledge to reduce emissions which brings in a fairness issue.

Some researchers have said that even if promises had been kept over the past five years, global temperatures would rise by at least 2.6°C by the end of the century, suggesting more aggressive action is needed.

Where are we now?

Although further improvement is needed, progress has been made towards the targets laid out by the PCA. Carbon-neutral goals are becoming more important in business, city, state and federal planning. Greener solutions are also becoming more accessible, cheaper and more competitive.

The power and transportation sectors are leading in environmentally-friendly solutions.

Another encouraging sign of progress is the slight decrease in projected warming. According to the Climate Action Tracker, current policies are leading to a 2.9°C increase in our global temperature. (This still warrants concern, but is a step in the right direction compared to the initial forecast of a 3.5°C increase.)

To read the full 32-page Paris Climate Agreement, click here.

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