The Paris Climate Agreement, explained

Fatima Arif

The Paris Climate Agreement [1] is a document which lays out a set of international climate goals. These aims include limiting global warming to under 1.5°C in order to prevent the worst effects of climate change[2]. The document also focuses on minimising the damage to people’s livelihoods, by preparing and adapting for climate change.

In December 2015, 188 countries officially signed the agreement in Paris. These countries are given freedom to help achieve these goals in a way they feel is appropriate to their financial, geographical, and social situation. Each country’s contribution is known as the ‘Nationally Determined Contribution’ (NDC). When countries sign up, they agree to present their own plan for their NDCs, and to allow the United Nations to track and review their progress. However, no country is legally required to achieve any of their projected NDCs[3].

Has the Paris Climate Agreement done enough so far to prevent global warming?

Unfortunately, the agreement is failing in its mission. Most countries are currently not even on track to meet their 2030 targets of carbon emission reductions[4]. It is predicted that with current efforts, global average temperature will rise 3.2°C by the end of this century, which is 1.7°C more than the Paris agreement aims for [5]. This is likely to lead to significant climate change.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. The globe is now warming at a slower rate than in the past. Furthermore, there have been some important successes in the fight against global warming.

One example of this is the emergence of net-zero emissions targets. Several countries have not only reduced their carbon emissions but are committed to achieving net-zero emissions. After the Paris Agreement, as of December 2020, 2 countries have achieved net-zero emissions and 6 have set legal targets of attaining net-zero emissions by 2050. Meanwhile, a dozen others are in the process of legislating for net-zero emission targets to be achieved by 2050.[6]  Some of these reductions in emissions are due to greater investment in renewable energy production. The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that the greatest contributor to electricity production will be renewable energy by 2025.[7]  Even some of the worst polluters are starting to clean up their acts. For example, China is building huge solar farms in Africa, as part of the Belt and Roads Initiative. Projects like these will contribute to the eventual phase-out of carbon-intensive energy production.

The Paris Agreement is also a step up from previous such agreements and is the first to push all participating countries to contribute to reduce CO2 emissions. The Kyoto Protocol focused on asking the major emitters to tackle their emissions, which only accounted for 18% of all global emissions[8]. Therefore, even with the Kyoto Protocol’s more legally binding contract, the potential for reducing emissions was limited. In fact, the more flexible, less penalising approach of the Paris Agreement may encourage countries to be more ambitious in their plans for tackling climate change. The Paris Agreement also has a better framework to track and review progress, for example by ensuring countries don’t double count the reductions in their carbon emissions.  The COP21 RIPPLE project has recently been set up to analyse the reasons behind why countries may not have yet met their proposed NDCs in this first cycle of the Paris Agreement.

The Paris Climate Agreement has also been successful in encouraging international cooperation. It is no secret that climate change is predicted to cause the most damage to developing nations, despite the fact that they may release much less greenhouse gases than other countries. Collaboration in research is likely to improve the science of solar cells and wind power or the monitoring of change in climates.  Examples of collaboration include the Europe-Africa Partnership on Renewable Energy (LEAP-RE) and the recently announced partnership between the UK and Bangladesh in studying climate change. There are also initiatives to boost climate finance: in September 2019, the UK announced that it will contribute £11.6 billion towards funding international climate projects[9].

How could the Paris Agreement be improved?

The immediate priority is to recover from the pandemic sustainably. During a time of crisis there are opportunities to pass legislation and direct change at a speed and scale that is not possible otherwise[10]. Currently the airline industry is need of financial support, so governments and institutions should use this as leverage to introduce environmental regulations and requirements for greener energy in the industry.

Furthermore, it may prove beneficial to carry out a larger trial of the ‘carbon market’ [11]to evaluate its successes. This would involve setting limits for maximum emissions, whilst allowing countries and businesses to trade their allowances. Trialling different mechanisms to encourage and improve the effectiveness of this market may serve as a better method of improving commitment to climate change initiatives than the imposition of legal and financial penalties.

[1] Paris Agreement to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Dec. 12, 2015, T.I.A.S. No. 16-1104.


[3] The Legal Character of the Paris Agreement. Bodansky, D. (2016).RECIEL, 25: 142-150.

[4]Climate change report card: These countries are reaching targets. K. Mulvaney. Sep 2019.


[6] Eighteen countries showing the way to carbon zero. The Conversation. S.Khan. Feb, 2019.

[7] Renewables 2020. Analysis and forecast to 2025. IEA. Nov 2020.

[8] Kyoto 1st commitment period (2008–12). European Commission.

[9]  International Climate Finance. GOV.UK.

[10] (2005). The Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership Under Pressure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. A. Boin, A., ‘t Hart, P., Stern, E., & Sundelius, B.. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511490880. 

[11] Feature: EU carbon market to move into fourth gear from 2021. S&P Global Platts. F. Watson. Oc 2020.

photo credit: “French Foreign Minister Fabius Bangs Down the Gavel After Representatives of 196 Countries Approved a Sweeping Environmental Agreement at COP21 in Paris” by US Department of State is marked with CC PDM 1.0