What is the Paris Agreement

What is the Paris Agreement

More about climate change

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The Paris Agreement is the world’s current blueprint to address climate change. Its goal is to limit global warming to below 2 C, or preferably 1.5 C, compared to pre-industrial levels.

In order to do that, the legally binding international treaty says countries must cut their greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions mainly come from burning fossil fuels such as oil, coal and gas for human activities like heating homes, powering cars and generating electricity.

The Paris Agreement also says developed countries that are historically responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions — places like Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. — must help their less developed counterparts reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the worst effects of climate change by sharing technological advances and financial support.

The deal was adopted in 2015 at COP21, or the 21st Conference of Parties, as the United Nations’ climate change meetings are officially known. There are currently 192 signatories to the agreement.

How does the Paris Agreement work?

The agreement requires signatories to set goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These goals must be revised every five years to become more ambitious. COP26 — this year’s UN climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, which runs from Oct. 31 to Nov. 12 — is world leaders’ first chance to present new, updated goals since the signing of the Paris Agreement.

Countries were supposed to submit their latest progress reports and update their goals — called nationally determined contributions, or NDCs — in 2020. But with COP26 delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it took until July of this year for all parties to submit reports to the UN body overseeing them.

Once the new goals are in, countries have to explain how they’re going to achieve them. National adaptation plans outline medium- and long-term goals countries set to increase their resilience to the effects of climate change, including rising sea levels, extreme heat and severe storms. Canada submitted its plan this year.

How does the Paris Agreement hold countries accountable for their climate goals?

Technically, it doesn’t. Even though the treaty is legally binding, there are no consequences for a country not meeting its emissions-reduction target because the process is “non-adversarial and non-punitive.”

Critics of the UN approach say its lack of enforcement on missed or inadequate goals means the world is on a path for further climate change and increasing extreme weather.

Indeed, decades after the creation of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue to rise at a dramatic pace. Canada has never hit a climate goal, but a recent study by climate policy organization Clean Prosperity suggests the country could be on track to hit its current target for the first time.

Even if the UN doesn’t penalize countries that fail to meet their goals, the Paris Agreement provides some transparency on who does — and doesn’t — hit their climate targets. Countries are required to report their greenhouse gas emissions annually, and a wider process called a global stock take begins this year to assess worldwide progress on actions outlined in the accord.

This transparency also means the promises and progress of countries are being tracked by international experts and the public, particularly a global grassroots climate movement pushing for stronger action from world governments.

What have countries done so far?

The Paris Agreement has spurred countries to make some ambitious climate commitments, but it remains to be seen how those promises will play out.

The UN says more than 130 countries have committed to, or are considering committing to, net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Canada has put its commitment to net zero by 2050 into law, which makes it more difficult for a new government to ignore or change when power changes hands in Ottawa. However the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act does not outline any specific penalties for missed targets, either. Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom and much of Europe, including the EU, have also put their climate commitments into law.

But reaching the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 C goal would require a much more abrupt move away from fossil fuels than most countries are proposing. In Canada, for instance, the federal government has purchased the Trans Mountain pipeline and is continuing with an expansion of the line, which runs from Alberta to the B.C. coast, with the aim of selling heavy oil to Asian markets in the coming decades. A report from the International Energy Agency earlier this year found the planet must stop investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure to achieve net-zero by 2050.

Meanwhile, the world’s current plans to cut emissions still don’t add up.

An analysis of those plans found they would not reduce the level of greenhouse gases enough to prevent a 2 C rise in average global temperatures. Instead, it found today’s commitments would result in a 16.3 per cent increase in the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming by 2030, compared to 2010 levels.

To limit global warming to below 2 C, those emissions need to decrease by about 25 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030. And to keep warming to below 1.5 C, the report concluded, carbon dioxide emissions would need to fall by about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030.

A further analysis in the 2021 Production Gap Report, produced by a group of research organizations in co-operation with the UN Environment Program, found world governments plan to produce fossil fuels in 2030 at a level that is more than double what would be required to limit global warming to 1.5 C.

What’s still left to do?

Much is left to do.

Only two tiny countries – Bhutan and Suriname – have reached net zero.

Meanwhile, the world’s top 10 greenhouse gas emitters, including China, the U.S., Canada, India, Russian and Japan, contribute 68 percent of global emissions. China and the U.S. have not made their net-zero goals into law.

In a speech at the opening ceremony of COP26, UN Climate Change executive secretary Patricia Espinosa outlined the steps world leaders need to take in order to avoid climate catastrophe.

“We either choose to achieve rapid and large-scale reductions of emissions to keep the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 C — or we accept that humanity faces a bleak future on this planet,” she said.

Espinosa called on world leaders to finish hammering out the details of Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which involves creating a global carbon credit system, and to scale up support for developing countries to tackle climate change.

Developed countries promised in 2009 to provide $100 billion a year to developing nations to help them adapt to climate change and address its main causes. As of 2019, they had put forth $79.6 billion, according to an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report, and the current roadmap to fulfil this promise — created by climate ministers from Canada and Germany — has rich nations meeting their target in 2023.

Espinosa closed her welcome speech to the summit by urging world leaders to step up and make bolder climate commitments.

“I encourage you to consider the choices that we must make, and the trust vested in you by billions,” she said.

“Let us rise to the enormous challenge of our times, this pivotal point in history — and achieve success for not just our present generation, but all generations to come.”

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