Climate agreement reached at COP21 in Paris

by Jessica Kroenert, 15 January 2016

On 12 December 2015 in Paris, 195 nations reached what many are calling a landmark agreement on climate change at the 21st Conference of the Parties for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP21. In many ways, this conference was internationally unprecedented: it drew 150 heads of state to Paris in one day, the most of any UN event in history, and it marks the first time a universal climate agreement has been reached.

Many are hailing the negotiations and the subsequent agreement as a success, including Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who has described it as a “victory for people, for the common good, and for multilateralism.” However, some critics point to the fact that while the Paris climate agreement was universally approved by all parties, it is not legally binding. Instead, each country has been asked to develop Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), which will serve as individualized action plans.

While some critics argue that a legally binding measure would be stronger, supporters of this approach argue that governments are more likely to approve and adhere to nationally determined goals than they are to internationally determined ones, such as the Kyoto Protocol. At the time of the official briefing on 17 December, 188 out of 195 countries had already come forward with national climate plans, but more detailed, long-term plans are due by 2020 when the agreement goes into full effect.

During negotiations, the language surrounding the target for limiting global temperature rise became one of the key issues under discussion. Since the 1990s the language has stated that global temperature rise should not exceed 2°C in order to avoid catastrophic effects on climate. However, at COP21, many states and non-state actors, especially island nations, pushed for the language of the document to aim for limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C.

Proponents of the 1.5°C target argue that the 2°C target is not ambitious enough to prevent the disappearance of certain island nations, many of which are already experiencing catastrophic events due to sea-level rise. After much negotiation, the final text of the document read "holding the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.”

According to Climate Action Tracker, an organization monitoring the INDCs and their projected impact, the current country pledges would only limit global temperature rise to 2.7°C. While this is not enough to reach the goal of “well below 2°C” many argue this is an area in which the deal’s five year review process can come into play. After the first five years in which the INDCs are in effect, and every five years thereafter, each party’s contribution will be reevaluated and strengthened in order to reach the dual goals of the agreement: keeping global temperature rise well below 2°C, and reaching net zero emissions by mid-century.

In order to achieve these goals, the Paris agreement establishes a floor of $100 billion dollars annually to be reached by 2020. These funds are expected to be contributed by the developed world to help mitigation and adaptation efforts in the developing world, and can take many forms, such as contributions to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), or to the World Bank. The agreement also includes language indicating that this $100 billion target will be increased over time.

State parties will have the opportunity to sign the agreement starting 22 April 2016, a date also internationally recognized as Earth Day. It will come into effect once at least fifty five countries, representing at least fifty five percent of the world’s population, sign the agreement. See below for the full text of the agreement.