What You Need to Know about the Paris Climate Agreement

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Environmental protests continue. Here’s what you need to know about the most important climate change agreement.

The Paris Agreement, a part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), concerns itself with greenhouse emissions mitigation, adaptation and financing. Its primary aim is: “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2  degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5  degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”  In December 2015, after tough negotiations it was passed and signed by 195 countries. Among those, China, the United States, and India account for over 42% of the world’s emissions. While the United States and China are far ahead of any other country in terms of CO2 emissions, Indian emissions are set to grow significantly in the future. The entire world was looking at these three countries for climate leadership.

According to the treaty, India will allow its emissions to triple by 2030. This is a signifiant improvement from the projected seven-fold increase without any climate action. Even after India’s emissions triple, it will reach about those of the United States and still be significantly lower than those of China. India is monitoring its progress by measuring carbon intensity of GDP by 33 to 35 percent by 2030, from 2005 levels (carbon intensity by GDP refers to CO2 emissions per unit of economic output). Such a structure allows India to work on reducing and down slowing their emissions, while also allowing them to maintain their economic growth and pull millions out of poverty. To complement the reductions in CO2 output, India has adopted an aggressive renewable energy policy, aiming to double its solar capacity year on year till 2022.

China is following a similar model. China’s commitment to the Paris climate deal allows it to increase emissions till 2030, when they claim their emissions will peak and then begin to descend. China has committed to reducing carbon intensity by GDP by 60 percent from pre-2005 levels. The nation is aggressively adopting renewable energy by adding renewable energy capacity faster than any other country. China is also cutting back on coal, with the government canceling the construction of 103 coal power plants. With its rapid adoption or renewable energy and slowdown in coal use, China could reach the carbon peak target much before 2030 and then begin to reduce its emissions.

The United States is the only country among these three that has committed to immediate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. has committed to reduce its CO2 emissions by 26-28 percent by 2025, from pre-2005 levels.  The United States would have to fully implement the Clean Power Plan and the Obama Administration’s Climate Action Plan if it is to meet its 2025 Paris Agreement commitment. Current national policies, including the Clean Power Plan, would only reduce emissions by 9% below 2005 levels. If the Clean Power Plan is stopped by the Trump administration, emissions in 2025 would be only 5% lower than 2005 levels and higher than current emissions.

The climate plan faces many issues. The most important being that even if every country were to meet every commitment it made, global warming would still be significantly over the aim of 2 degrees celsius. The Paris Climate Agreement fails to meet its own goals. It is not the final word on the problem of global warming, but, instead, its symbolism is getting the entire world onboard to a climate solution.

The biggest problem with the Paris climate deal was that when it was passed, it was not actually international law. At that point, all the countries had just stated commitments that they would try to achieve, but the commitment were not legally enforced. This concerned a lot of world leaders and after a tough year of negotiations, the Paris climate deal was finally made an international law on 5th November, 2016. Over 96 countries, which represent two-thirds of the world’s emissions have ratified this law. Somewhat. The Paris climate deal is a law, and the countries commitments to climate change disaster relief and funding are now compulsory. However, the actual numeric emission reduction targets are still not binding by law and countries have to make the effort to honor it themselves.

Lets talk about the elephant in the room now: President Trump pulling out of the Paris Climate deal? Can he actually do that and what effect would that have on America and the world? For President Trump to legally pull out of the Paris climate deal is a long and arduous process. The treaty has a four-year withdrawal process. Alternatively, the United States could withdraw from the UNFCCC, the overall climate change body, which would also withdraw the country from the Paris climate agreement. This can be achieved in a year. A third option is to just continue business as usual and not fulfill the greenhouse gas emissions reduction commitments, which seems to be the path the Trump administration may pursue.

Pulling out of the climate deal will have many international consequences. It will be a huge blow to the climate effort and be disastrous for the environment. But on top of that it would tarnish the United States’ image in the international sphere. Climate advocates also say that President Trump shouldn’t walk away from the agreement because, doing so, could undermine his ability to build trust with other leaders on issues that are higher on his to-do list.

Harshvardhan Sanghi is a student at Duke University.

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