- The Paris Agreement was enacted in 2016 to mitigate, finance and adapt to the growing challenges of climate change.
- The agreement aims to limit the increase of global temperatures to 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) above pre-industrial levels.
- However, it’s projected that current pledges are not ambitious enough to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C or even 2°C.
- Countries need to strengthen their commitments quickly enough to achieve the Paris Agreement targets.
What is the Paris Agreement?
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) enacted the Paris Agreement in 2016 in response to the growing challenges of climate change. 196 countries signed the agreement at the 21st Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC in Le Bourget, near Paris, France.
The Paris Agreement aims to keep average global temperatures below 2 °C (3.6 °F) above pre-industrial levels. However, limiting the increase to 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) is targeted to significantly reduce the impacts of climate change. The agreement also aims to reach global net-zero emissions by 2050. Please check out Net Zero by 2050 for a more comprehensive study of how countries plan transition to net zero energy systems by 2050.
To achieve these targets, each country is expected to cut its share of global emissions every five years. These commitments are known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC’s). All countries reconvene every 5 years to assess their progress through a process known as the global stocktake. While no mechanism forces countries to set specific emissions targets, it’s expected that each new target is progressively more ambitious.
Why the 1.5°C target
Scientists have warned for years of the environmental consequences if global temperatures continue to rise at the current pace. In fact, the earth’s average temperature has already increased approximately 1°C above pre industrial levels (source). Without significant changes, global temperatures are expected to reach 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels between 2030 and 2052 (source). At those temperatures, some of the expected effects to occur would be:
- Rising Seas would force the relocation of tens of millions of people living in coastal areas.
- Oceans would become more acidic, which could eliminate up to 90 percent of coral reefs. The world’s fisheries would become far less productive.
- The Arctic would experience a summer with no sea ice, which has not happened in at least two thousand years. Forty percent of the Arctic’s permafrost would thaw by the end of the century.
- Various Species, including insects, plants, and vertebrates would be at risk of extinction.
Which countries are responsible?
While there seems to be a general agreement on the science behind global warming, countries tend to disagree on responsibility. Over the years, officials have debated which countries—developed or developing—are more responsible for global emissions. The answer depends on who you ask and how you measure emissions.
Developing countries argue that developed countries should carry a heavier burden as they have emitted more greenhouse gases over time. Indeed, the United States has emitted the most of all time, followed by the European Union.
However, in recent years, developing countries (namely China and India) have started to emit a much larger percentage of global greenhouse gases. Developed countries therefore argue that those countries must do more now to address climate change.
In the context of this debate, major climate agreements have evolved in how they pursue emissions reductions. While the Kyoto Protocol (predecessor to the Paris Agreement) required only developed countries to reduce emissions, the Paris Agreement recognizes climate change as a shared problem and calls on all countries to set emissions targets.
Is the Paris Agreement Enough?
One of the main drawbacks to the Paris Agreement is that contributions are based on “promises” and not firm commitments. In contrast, the Kyoto Protocol set legally enforceable commitment targets. The Paris Agreement’s emphasis on consensus building allows for loosely voluntary nationally determined targets.
So, are current policies enough to reduce emissions to target levels under the Paris Agreement? The Climate Action Tracker (CAT) was created with support from the ClimateWorks Foundation to answer that question. However, based on the CAT’s projections, current pledges are not ambitious enough to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C or even 2°C (source). In fact, current policies would result in a 2.9°C rise by 2100 (see chart below).
Based on current pledges under the Paris Agreement, it’s estimated that global temperatures will rise to 2.6°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100 (source). In short, the Paris Agreement does not appear to be enough to curb global temperatures to target levels.
Which countries are lagging?
To understand which countries are lagging most, the CAT rated each country’s long-term targets against the “fair share” effort expected under the Paris Agreement. As shown in the chart below, a majority of countries lie within insufficient categories.
The end of 2020 marked the moment, under the Paris Agreement’s “ratchet mechanism”, when nations were supposed to formally submit more ambitious commitments for cutting their emissions. Some of the biggest emitters registered their new targets in time, but notable absences included the US, India and China. While the US has since updated it’s Paris Agreement target of 50-52% by 2030 below 2005 levels, China and India have yet to make any changes. Other major emitters that have not come forward with new plans include Indonesia, Iran, Canada, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.
Looking ahead, it’s important that the largest emitters strengthen their commitments quickly enough to achieve the Paris Agreement targets. Some experts are hopeful that countries can make the necessary changes; in fact, over a dozen countries have already submitted stronger NDC targets. Many more could do so ahead of the COP26 summit in November 2021.