What Is the Paris Agreement/COP21?

The Paris Agreement, also known as the Paris Climate Accord, is an agreement among the leaders of over 180 countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit the global temperature increase to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) above pre-industrial levels by the year 2100. Ideally, the agreement aims to keep the increases to below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 F). The agreement is also called the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The two-week conference leading to the agreement was held in Paris in Dec. 2015. As of Aug. 2020, 195 UNFCCC members have signed the agreement, and 189 have become party to it. The Paris Agreement is a replacement for the 2005 Kyoto Protocol.

Understanding the Paris Agreement/COP21

One of the most significant results of the 2015 Paris Agreement was that both the United States and China initially signed on, although the United States has since reneged. Together, the U.S. and China are responsible for approximately 43% of global emissions: 28% attributable to China and 15% attributable to the United States. All signatories agreed to the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions due to rising temperatures and other risks that affect the entire world. Another significant component of the agreement is that it includes countries that rely upon revenue from oil and gas production. 

Each country that attended the 21st Conference of the Parties agreed to cut its emissions by a particular percent based on a base year's emissions level. The United States, for example, promised to cut its emissions by up to 28% from 2005 levels. These promises are called intended nationally determined contributions. It was decided that each participating country would be allowed to determine its own priorities and targets since each country has different circumstances and a different capacity to undertake change.

The United States Withdrawal From the Paris Agreement

On June 1, 2017, United States President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement. Trump reasoned that the Paris accord would undermine the domestic economy and place the nation at a permanent disadvantage. The United States' withdrawal cannot occur before Nov. 2, 2020, according to Article 28 of the Paris Agreement. Until then, the United States may have to meet its commitments under the agreement, such as reporting its emissions to the United Nations.

The decision by the United States to withdraw was met with widespread condemnation from citizens in the United States and worldwide, religious organizations, businesses, political leaders, scientists, and environmentalists.  Despite the withdrawal, several U.S. state governors have formed the United States Climate Alliance and have pledged to continue to adhere to and advance the Paris Agreement.

The Paris Agreement is also an issue in the 2020 presidential campaign. Democratic candidate Joe Biden's platform includes a pledge to rejoin the Paris Agreement.

Structure of the Paris Agreement

For the agreement to be enacted, at least 55 countries representing at least 55% of global emissions were required to join. The agreement opened for formal commitment in April 2016 and closed in April 2017. After a country's leader decided to join the agreement, domestic government approval or the passing of a domestic law was required for that nation to officially participate.

Scientists have cautioned that the agreement is not sufficient to prevent catastrophic global warming because countries' carbon emissions reduction pledges will not be enough to meet temperature goals. Other criticisms relate to the agreement's ability to address climate change-related losses in the most vulnerable countries, such as most African countries, many South Asian countries, and several South and Central American countries.

Every five years, governments must report on their progress toward and plans for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The Paris Agreement also requires developed countries to send $100 billion a year to developing countries starting in 2020, when the agreement becomes effective. This amount will increase over time.