What is the Paris climate agreement and why does it matter?

Everything you need to know about the Paris climate agreement - the world’s most important climate change treaty.

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What is the Paris Climate Agreement?

The Paris Climate Agreement is an international treaty that commits most of the world’s governments to addressing climate change.

Forged through decades of negotiations, the Paris Agreement is the world’s first comprehensive climate treaty. Despite its problems, it’s still seen as a major breakthrough in humanity’s effort to tackle the issue. When someone mentions Paris in the context of climate change, this is usually what they’re talking about.

The goal of the Paris Agreement is to stop the world’s average temperature rising more than two degrees, or ideally 1.5 degrees.

Doing this would likely prevent the worst impacts of climate change (although it will still cause serious harm, especially to people who did least to cause this crisis). But at the moment the world isn’t even on track to hit that goal.

Almost every government in the world has signed up to the Paris Agreement. The only ones that haven’t joined are Iran, Turkey,  Eritrea, Iraq, South Sudan, Libya and Yemen.

The US left the agreement under Donald Trump, but rejoined in early 2021 when President Joe Biden took office.

Is the Paris Agreement working?

Not yet, but it still could. Most experts agree that it’s helped speed up climate action around the world, but not by enough. It’s also a useful framework to help countries work together on climate change. However, it still relies on them taking the problem seriously in the first place.

One recent study has crunched the numbers from commitments and pledges over the last 10 years and found that the Paris Agreement’s goals are ‘within reach’. But reaching them won’t be easy.

To get back on track, countries need to set more ambitious short-term goals for reducing their emissions. They also need to work harder to keep their promises. Scientists say we need a 45% emissions cut in the next 10 years to stay under that 1.5 degree limit.

Workers hanging from ropes inspect a wind turbine blade high in the air. A just transition should help workers find jobs in emerging green industries.

For the Paris Climate Agreement to succeed, we’ll need to hugely expand renewable energy. © Paul Langrock / Zenit / Greenpeace

What have countries agreed to?

Under the Paris Agreement, each country has to say how much it will reduce its contribution to climate change. As well as these targets, they also have to publish five-yearly plans for how they’ll make it all happen.

Here’s a quick look at a few countries’ latest commitments:

  • UK – pledged to cut emissions 68% by 2030.
  • France – negotiates as part of the EU, which pledged to cut 55% by 2030.
  • USA – recently rejoined after leaving under Donald Trump. New commitment expected soon.
  • China – pledged to peak its emissions by 2030, but a full Paris commitment is still due, which will hopefully be more ambitious.
  • Brazil – pledged to cut 43% by 2030, but with a dodgy accounting trick that allows them to actually increase their emissions.

The Climate Action Tracker has a useful summary of different countries’ pledges, and a rating system showing whether they’re doing their fair share. However, the countries that industrialised first should really move even faster, given their responsibility for historic emissions.

Are countries’ plans good enough?

Not yet. The idea is that the world’s combined commitments should be enough to keep us under the 1.5 degree limit. But at the moment, they’re failing this test.

Each government can decide how big its reduction will be. And even if every country hit its current Paris Agreement target, global emissions would only be 1% lower by 2030, and the world would warm by 2.1 – 3.3 degrees. These temperature changes might not sound like much, but in the world’s hugely powerful and delicately-balanced climate system, they make all the difference.

A world map, with countries colour-coded based on the strength of their Paris Climate Agreement pledges. Most are rated insufficient or critically insufficient.

Most countries' climate plans aren't strong enough to meet the goal of the Paris Agreement Climate Action Tracker

This shortfall in countries’ targets is a serious problem. But the Paris Climate Agreement’s designers did anticipate it, and they built in a solution. Under the treaty, countries agreed to keep reviewing and updating their targets and plans, steadily increasing the ambition over time. The EU, Canada, the US, South Korea, Japan, South Africa, and the UK have all strengthened their original commitments recently.

However, these stronger commitments won’t happen without real public pressure. We can all help by telling people in power that they need to do better.

Are countries keeping their promises?

These are long term goals, so it’s important to know if they’re doing enough to get on the right track.

So far it’s a mixed picture, and some countries are doing much more than others. But, if every country just stuck with its current climate policies, the world wouldn’t even hit its existing targets. And as we just learned, even these targets are still much too low.

However, this country-by-country view of climate progress doesn’t give the whole story. These underwhelming headline figures can hide a huge amount of movement below the surface – both good and bad. For example, the rising sales of oversized ‘SUV’ cars have wiped out a huge amount of progress in other areas, because they’re so much more polluting than regular cars.

Look at things like cities, renewable energy, or the financial system and you’ll find similarly fascinating sub-plots in the global climate story. So while it’s good to keep an eye on the big picture, going deeper can help us find the biggest threats and opportunities ahead.

Some cities are reducing dependence on cars by investing in public transport, and making streets safer to walk and cycle © Crispin Hughes

What’s the UK doing?

The UK has done fairly well up until now, but it’s about to run into trouble. For the last 10 years or so, the UK’s carbon footprint has fallen fast. That’s because we’ve mostly stopped using power plants that burn coal – the most polluting fossil fuel.

However, nearly all the coal plants are closed now, so the government needs to find new ways to keep carbon emissions falling. And at the moment, they don’t have enough solid plans in place to make that happen.

Of course, Greenpeace UK is campaigning to change that, and there are loads of ways to get involved. Check out the Take Action page for some ideas.

Is the Paris climate agreement connected to the COP26 climate talks happening in the UK?

Yes, these talks are part of making the Paris agreement work. At the COP26 climate talks, countries will discuss their overall progress in meeting the goals of the Paris agreement, and negotiate a path forward.

COP stands for Conference of the Parties. And 26 is the number of years they’ve been holding these meetings (it’s been slow going). Sadly, the parties in question aren’t the kind with cake and dancing. Parties is diplomatic jargon for countries who’ve signed up to the UN’s climate change framework.

COP26 is important though. It’s the first global meeting where countries have to bring proper emission cutting targets, and plans to show how they’re doing their bit.

Another top priority for COP26 will be making sure that more financially wealthy countries provide more funding to support poorer and more vulnerable countries tackle and adapt to climate change.

This year, the UK is the host country. That means the government has a particular responsibility to get its house in order and lead by example. They’ll also have to work much harder to defend all their bad climate decisions.

What can people do to help?

Right now, the world’s governments are setting us up for a pretty bleak future. But that future isn’t written yet, and it’s up to all of us to make the politicians raise their game. Here are a few resources to get you started:

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