What, you ask, is the Paris Agreement? It’s essentially an international treaty aiming to combat climate change and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. One of the first tasks American President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. accomplished after being sworn into office was to recommit his nation to the treaty. His predecessor, President Trump, had withdrawn only a few months before, in November 2020—the only nation to withdraw after signing. He’d planned on doing so since June 2017; his accomplishment was short-lived.
The Paris Agreement is named for the city in France, where it was signed in 2015 at the 21st annual Conference of Parties (COP21). Every year, the goal of the COP is to review the implementation of the so-called Rio Convention. In 1992, at the Rio Earth Summit in Brazil, the international community adopted the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Rio Convention set out a framework to deal with stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions. Three years later, in Berlin in 1993, was the COP1. Two decades later, we arrive at COP21.
When the COP21 met in Paris at the end of 2015, they did so with the goal of adopting what we now know as the Paris Agreement—and indeed all 196 parties present chose to adopt the Agreement. At the time of writing, only eight countries are not part of the agreement: Iran, Iraq, Eritrea, Angola, Libya, South Sudan, Yemen, and Turkey. In summary, the document’s goal is “to limit global warming to well below 2, preferable to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.” In other words, to set a ceiling, a stopping point that humanity will not allow global temperature rise to surpass. This is, by any account, an unimpeachable goal—nobody truly wishes to experience first-hand what might happen if global temperatures rise rapidly and unchecked.
The nature of the Paris Agreement was that it could not take effect until at least 55 nations accounting for at least 55% of all global greenhouse gas emissions had formally submitted the necessary materials. This tipping point was reached on October 5, 2016 (nearly one year after the initial signing in Paris), and the agreement was thus able to enter into force one month later, on November 4, 2016. So, over four years down the line, with road bumps such as the United States’ off-and-on commitment, what has been accomplished?
Bad news first: the globe is still warming at an alarming rate and we are far from achieving the temperature rise ceiling set as the Paris Agreement’s main goal. Of course, the ugly, pollutant-spewing, pedal-to-the-medal beast that is the industrialized world economy is not so easily haltable; it’s been barely four years since the Paris Agreement went into force, hardly enough time to fully pivot. Nations are meant to assess their progress on the goals laid out in the Paris Agreement every five years; the first due date for that assessment is not until 2023. Even that assessment is a little hollow, as countries are able to set their own goals and, failure to meet those goals brings no consequence (other than global warming itself, of course).
There is some good news. At the very least, the Paris Agreement was an international call to do better that instilled a sense of communal urgency. The world came together to agree that yes, something must be done. In 2015, the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) was formed to encourage companies to act on their own carbon footprints. Over a thousand businesses have since worked with the organization to set concrete emissions-reduction goals. Renewable energy sources like wind and solar have become more popular and attracted more investors, but not enough to secure the goals of the Paris Agreement. Still, a 162% increase in solar energy generation from 2015 to 2019 marks important progress to fully renewable energy infrastructure.
In December of 2020, the European Union (EU) updated its climate goals as laid out under the Paris Agreement: “to reduce emissions by at least 55% by 2030 from 1990 levels.” This is an update from their initial target of 40%. Automobile giant General Motors recently announced a plan to produce exclusively electric vehicles by 2035. Large organizations, both state and private, are making more and more ambitious plans against climate change. There is hope.
As a global people, we have a long way to go. Our governments must take these issues yet more seriously, as must our large corporations, as must private citizens. We know the globe is warming; we know the ice caps are melting; we know the sea level is rising. The Paris Agreement is an important step towards halting climate change. We’ve come a long way from Exxon hiding their knowledge of the effects of their business on global warming, but we have a long way to go and not quite enough time to get there.
We dearly need those with the most power to enact change to take more effective action against climate change. That said, within our communities, there is much work to be done right now. ShareYourself hosts a large variety of projects aimed at mitigating what damage has already been done by global warming. Get involved with your community today—you’re sure to find a cause you care about on ShareYourself.