COP21: The Paris Agreement in brief

COP21: The Paris Agreement in brief

By Craig Busch

May 03, 2016

What did the international community agree to at the UN climate talks at COP21 in Paris?

At COP21 in Paris, Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reached a landmark agreement to help address the climate change challenge and to accelerate and intensify the actions and investments needed for a sustainable low-carbon future. The Paris Agreement marks a new type of international cooperation whereby all countries are involved, engaged contributors throughout each stage of the policy’s development. In spite of the near-universal acclaim and positive international publicity that the agreement has garnered, it can often be difficult to discern what are the real-world implications resulting from such an agreement. Better yet, one might ask what does it all mean? If you would be so kind as to listen, I would be happy to elaborate.

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. Furthermore, the Agreement pursues efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Additionally, the accord aims to strengthen the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change. 

To reach these ambitious goals, a new technology framework and an enhanced capacity building framework will be initiated. These policies will be supported by international financial backing, up to an estimated $100 billion dollars provided annually by the year 2020. The Agreement also provides for enhanced transparency of action and support for these policies through more robust transparency. 

In advance of COP21, 189 countries representing 95% of global emissions submitted their national plans to the UNFCCC. Significantly, it should be noted that the UN has calculated that even if fully implemented, these plans would be insufficient to hold global warming to 2 degrees, with estimates pegging the temperature rise to 2.7 to 3.5 degrees given pledged ambitions.

The Paris Agreement will be open for signature on 22 April 2016 – Earth Day – at UN Headquarters in New York. The agreement will enter into force 30 days after 55 countries that account for at least 55% of global emissions have deposited their instruments of ratification.

Essential Elements

The Paris Agreement, adopted through Decision 1/CP.21, addresses crucial areas necessary to combat climate change. Some of the key aspects of the agreement are set out below:

  • Long-term temperature goal (Art. 2) – The Paris Agreement, in seeking to strengthen the global response to climate change, reaffirms the goal of limiting global temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius, while pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees.
  • Global peaking (Art. 4) –To achieve this temperature goal, Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, followed by rapid reductions to achieve a balance between sources and sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of the century.
  • Mitigation (Art. 4) – The Paris Agreement establishes binding commitments by all Parties to prepare, communicate and maintain a nationally determined contribution (NDC) and to pursue domestic measures to achieve them by 2020. It also prescribes that Parties shall communicate their NDCs every 5 years and provide information necessary for clarity and transparency.
  • Increasing Ambition: To set a firm foundation for higher ambition, each successive NDC will represent a progression beyond the previous one and reflect the highest possible ambition, a policy technique referred to as a ratchet mechanism. A visual representation for the mechanism’s implementation timeline can also be found here. 
  • Sinks and reservoirs (Art.5) –The Paris Agreement encourages Parties to conserve and enhance, as appropriate, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases including forests. The importance of adequate and predictable financial resources for the implementation of policy approaches and positive incentives to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) is emphasized.
  • Market and non-markets (Art. 6) – The Paris Agreement establishes a mechanism to contribute to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and support sustainable development, as well as defining a framework for non-market approaches to sustainable development.
  • Adaptation (Art. 7) – The Paris Agreement establishes a global goal to significantly strengthen national adaptation efforts – enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reduction of vulnerability to climate change – through support and international cooperation.
  • Loss and damage (Art. 8) – The Paris Agreement significantly enhances the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage, which will develop approaches to help vulnerable countries cope with the adverse effects of climate change, including extreme weather events and slow-onset events such as sea-level rise. The Agreement now provides a framework for Parties to enhance understanding, action and support with regard to loss and damage.
  • Financing and Support (Art. 9, 10 and 11) – The Paris Agreement reaffirms the obligations of developed countries to support the efforts of developing country Parties to build clean, climate-resilient futures, while for the first time encouraging voluntary contributions by other Parties. Developed countries are strongly urged to scale up efforts to achieve the goal of $100 billion per year by 2020 to finance mitigation and adaptation in developing countries. 
  • Transparency (Art. 13) – The Paris Agreement relies on a robust transparency and accounting system to provide clarity on action and support by Parties, with flexibility for their differing capabilities. 
  • Global Stocktake (Art. 14) – A “global stocktake”, set to take place in 2023 and every 5 years thereafter, will assess collective progress toward meeting the purpose of the Agreement in a comprehensive and facilitative manner. 

In summary, one might say that the Paris Agreement is so exceptional in that it has sparked a new type of international cooperation between countries, where developed and developing countries are united in a common framework and all countries involved are engaged contributors. It also reflects the growing recognition that climate action offers tremendous opportunities and benefits for social, economic and environmental change. Finally, it showcases that climate impacts can be effectively managed by an international collective when the unity of purpose is provided, as has been demonstrated to us in this moment. That in itself is a truly remarkable achievement, and one that will certainly be heralded for years to come. 

(Icon photo courtesy of aigle_dore/Flickr)

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