The Paris Agreement Was a First Step, Not an End Goal. Still, the World’s Nations Are Far Behind

Katie Livingstone

Without any further intervention, the world is on track to raise the global average temperature by around 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, falling dangerously short of the goals laid out in the Paris Agreement, according to the UN’s 2020 Emissions Gap Report.

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Most have yet to even establish detailed plans for meeting their targeted greenhouse gas emissions, making Biden’s goal simple: “preventing catastrophe.”

WASHINGTON—Without any further intervention, the world is on track to raise the global average temperature by around 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, falling dangerously short of the goals laid out in the Paris Agreement, according to the UN’s 2020 Emissions Gap Report.

A pillar of the landmark treaty was signatory countries’ promise to work toward limiting the global temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, but ideally to 1.5 degrees, in order to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, including scorching heat waves, devastating droughts and the displacement of millions of climate refugees. 

“Goal number one of our climate policy is preventing catastrophe,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday in the lead up to the two-day virtual Leaders Summit on Climate.

Although many participants at Biden’s summit have pledged to achieve ambitious emissions reductions in the next decade, the treaty includes no real consequences for failing to reach those goals. And many climate experts question whether meeting even the least ambitious goals set forth in the Paris Agreement will be enough to stem the worst effects of global warming.

“The Paris Agreement right now is the best we have,” said Alice Hill, an energy and environment expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former special assistant to President Barack Obama. “But I don’t think that answers the ultimate question: What are we going to do about climate change?”

The agreement was a huge step forward for global cooperation on climate change, but it does not include the legal or logistical mechanisms needed to spur the sort of dramatic changes in domestic and global policies that would have the most impact on emissions reductions, she said. In large part, this is because the Paris Agreement was never intended to be the end-all solution to climate change.

“It was anticipated that this would be just a first step of what countries would do and over time, they would increase their ambitions,” said Hill.

 But as most countries struggle to meet the minimum requirements laid out in the treaty, the Paris Agreement is starting to seem more like the end goal than the beginning of the world’s comprehensive response to climate change—and this, Hill and other experts say, is dangerous.

 ”You can argue that it’s necessary, but not sufficient,” said Pablo Canziani, co-founder of UNESCO’s Regional Center for Climate Change and Decision-Making in Latin America and a former lead author of physical sciences for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group I. “And that really shows up in the way that the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and other compromises were made.“

NDCs are at the center of the Paris Agreement, requiring each member state to step up efforts to cut national emissions in five-year increments. Last year’s planned UN Climate Change Conference, COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, should have provided the treaty’s first serious round of deadlines for emissions reductions, but it was postponed to this year due to the pandemic. 

Experts are looking forward to the rescheduled conference in November for more substantive evidence of how dedicated member states are to meeting their obligations under the agreement.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, former President Donald Trump ushered in a dark age for environmental progress around the world through an overarching denial of science that other leaders in Brazil, Hungary and Poland have embraced. The U.S. became the only country to withdraw from the Paris Agreement; one of Biden’s first acts as president was to rejoin it.

The majority of countries that have signed onto the Paris Agreement have yet to establish detailed plans for meeting their emissions reductions targets, making it increasingly unlikely that they will be able to meet their NDC goals.

“It’s important to recognize that the overarching goal to these temperature thresholds is to limit by every fraction of a degree that we can avoid,” said Rachel Cleetus, climate and energy policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

With the world having warmed by about 1 degree Celsius from the 20th century average, Cleetus said that “it’s not like we will fall off a cliff” if warming hits 1.5 degrees. But with the effects of climate-amplified extreme weather ever more apparent, she said, it’s clear that every little bit helps. 

Indeed, Liliana Hisas, executive director of the Universal Ecological Fund, said people need to better understand the massive scope of global warming. Hisas worked with Canziani and other scientists to produce the “The Truth Behind the Climate Pledges,” a look at how realistic implementation of the Paris Agreement really is. The report found that the NDC pledges of almost 75 percent of participating countries are significantly less than what is needed to reduce global greenhouse emissions by 50 percent by 2030, and that a significant reframing of how world leaders view climate change is necessary to spur more impactful commitments. 

Although Biden announced this week that the U.S. would seek to reduce its emissions by at least 50 percent by 2030, critics note that without a change in how the Paris Agreement is enforced, some countries may not take full responsibility for fighting climate change.

“This is the decade in which we can either keep hopes alive for the Paris Agreement and temperature goals, or we’re at grave risk of losing them,” said Cleetus. “We need to hear from nations that they understand the gravity of the moment and are going to act in accordance with that.”  

Compared to previous administrations, Biden has enunciated the most ambitious climate goals to date and described reducing emissions and the economic transition to a renewable energy economy as goals across all parts of his administration.  

For many climate experts, that shift in perspective was long overdue.  

“People think America is exceptional, but we’re not going to be exceptional when it comes to being hurt by climate change,” said Hill.

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