A Quick Guide to Understanding the Paris Climate Agreement


By Kelsey Callahan

As a Republican working in the clean-energy/environmental policy space, it’s second nature to rattle off complaints about the Paris Climate Agreement. Whether it’s that the agreement is a clear executive overreach or that its promises will result in effects that are economically harmful, it has its shortcomings. But I, like many of us in the space, have never taken the time to read the document itself.

President Trump’s call for his senior advisers to reexamine our nation’s role in the accord offers a good opportunity cut through talking points and study exactly what President Obama and Secretary Kerry agreed to in the first place. The results may surprise you.

What is the Paris Climate Agreement?

An international law negotiated and signed by 195 countries that went into effect on November 4, 2016, the Paris Agreement requires all countries to put forward their best efforts through “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) and to strengthen these efforts in the years ahead. Governments must develop climate action plans that will be periodically revised and replaced with new, more ambitious plans, as well as report on emissions and implementation efforts regularly.

The emissions reductions that each country committed to under the Paris Agreement are not legally binding, nor were they approved by Congress – the typical approach to ensuring broad-based adherence to international treaties and agreements. Instead, the agreement seeks to create a transparent system that will allow the public to monitor how well each country is doing in meeting its goals in hopes that this will motivate them to transition more quickly to clean, renewable energy like wind, solar and hydropower. Rather than using a legal framework, the Paris Agreement relies on international social pressure and, essentially, shame as a central motivator for emissions reductions.

What’s the point?

According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), “the Paris Agreement’s central aim is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Additionally, the agreement aims to strengthen the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change.”

What’s the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change?

The UNFCCC is an international environmental treaty adopted at the “Rio Earth Summit” in 1992. The objective of the treaty is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. It’s the framework treaty through which global climate action commitments are negotiated.

The treaty itself set no mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual countries and contains no enforcement mechanisms. Instead, the treaty provides for updates (called “protocols”) that would set mandatory emission limits. The principal update is the Kyoto Protocol. The Paris Agreement is just the latest update to negotiations under the treaty.

The 197 countries that have ratified the Convention and are committed to phasing out the use of fossil fuels while increasing renewable energy. Each sets its own emissions targets and comes up with plans for meeting them. While the set emissions targets are not binding, nations will be required to submit to outside monitoring of their progress.

What is the U.S required to do?

The UNFCC also states that the U.S. “intends to achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 per cent below its 2005 level in 2025 and to make best efforts to reduce its emissions by 28%.”

Where does the U.S stand right now? 

Energy-related emissions have already decreased by 14% below their levels from 2005 – and they’re on track to continue decreasing more during the years ahead. These cuts in emissions are largely related to the affordability and abundance of natural gas driven by discovery, technological advancement and the free market.

What about those payments I’ve heard about?

In November 2014, President Obama pledged $3 billion (to be paid in installments over the course of 6 years) in contribution to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), an international effort established in 2010 as a mechanism to distribute funding to clean tech/renewable energy programs for industrializing countries that might otherwise grow a heavy carbon footprint. Two $500 million grants were transferred to the fund under the prior administration.

Congress never appropriated money for the GCF, but the funds came from the Economic Support Fund, a $4.3 billion fund that Congress had already appropriated to the State Department for the promotion of economic and political stability in countries with special conditions. While some of the support fund contains some dollars earmarked for specific programs, the GCF grants came from dollars that were never officially allocated.

At least 49 countries have also pledged funds, including Mexico, South Korea, Germany, France, and Japan. Notably, Sweden and Japan have already paid out 2-3 times the amount pledged.

What about developing countries?

Article 4.4 of the agreement states: “Developed country parties should continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets. Developing country parties should continue enhancing their mitigation efforts, and are encouraged to move over time towards economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets in the light of different national circumstances.”

Kelsey Callahan currently serves as Program Associate at Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions (CRES) and a 2017 Fellow of the Clean Energy Leadership Institute (CELI).
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