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From Paris to Poland: What is the Paris Agreement?

What’s the Paris Agreement? In short, the most ambitious global climate agreement the world has ever seen. Here’s a breakdown of the details.


If we’re ultimately able to hold the line on global warming and avert the worst of climate change, it will be in no small part thanks to the agreement and what happened at the UN’s COP 21 conference in 2015.

And for the critics out there, yes warming is continuing and glaciers are melting and seas are rising. Yes, we absolutely need government leaders to increase the ambition of their goals to fight it. But Paris was a critical first step, a door opening to the future we actually want, and without it . . . well, we’re not going to go there.

So what is the Paris Agreement and why is it such a big deal?

Before we answer that, let’s take a step back. Entering the world of UN negotiations can sometimes feel like stepping into one big alphabet soup. Here’s a quick glossary of the important who and what is hiding behind all those acronyms.

  • UNFCCC: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, an international framework for climate action adopted in 1992. To make things confusing, the name is actually most commonly used to refer not to the treaty but to the UN department (or “secretariat”) in charge of advancing the organization’s climate change goals.
  • COP/COP 21: Conference of Parties. There are 197 nations, or “parties,” in the UNFCCC (the text framework). Each year, the UNFCCC parties come together for a conference of parties (COP) meeting. COP 21 was the twenty-first meeting, which took place in Paris, France in November and December 2015.
  • NDC: Nationally Determined Contributions. What made the Paris process different was that it wasn’t based on any UN agency or body telling countries what they needed to do. Instead, each country came up with and committed to its own specific plan to fight climate change at home – its NDC.

>> Get the visual: Check out our infographic, “From Paris to Poland: Keeping Climate Action on Track” <<

Alright, now that we have some of the lingo down, let’s dive into the details.

What Is the Paris Agreement? How Does It Work?

At COP 21, the world agreed on one primary, overarching goal: to limit “global temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius, while pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees.”

(On the face of it, 2 degrees may not seem like a lot, but remember how delicate and interconnected the global climate system is – just think about the difference between 0 and 1 degree C.)

To get there – and achieve a number of other goals in the agreement – each country committed to an NDC spelling out how much it would cut its greenhouse gas emissions by and by when. Many also included commitments to other steps to fight climate change.

The critical part of NDCs is that they gave each country the flexibility to tailor its climate action plan to its own unique circumstances. For some countries – like Brazil – this meant a primary focus on fighting deforestation. For others – like India – this meant focusing on cutting coal and transitioning to renewables.

Morgan Freeman explains COP 21 in Paris.

Along with the steps they were taking at home to meet their NDCs, many countries also started exploring new kinds of collaborations. As just one example, COP 21 also saw the birth of the International Solar Alliance – a group of sun-rich countries led by India and France working to triple the amount of solar power in the world by 2030.

But even when negotiators reached the Paris Agreement, they knew what they agreed to won’t limit greenhouse gas emissions enough to hit the 2-degree goal. Luckily, they built in a review mechanism that requires countries to ramp up their commitments and submit new, more ambitious commitments every five years.

The agreement also included goals in a number of other important areas, areas like climate finance to help developing nation pursue low-carbon growth and transparency to ensure countries are living up to their promises.

What the Paris Agreement didn’t include, though, are the rules and finished mechanisms to guide progress and hold countries accountable. And without strong rules and clear mechanisms, there’s the risk of all the critical commitments and goals becoming mostly big words on paper.

That’s why this year’s COP – taking place in December in Poland – is so important. It’s when countries start reviewing their commitments and hammering out the rules and specifics of how the international community moves forward. It’s when the Paris Agreement gets real.

As UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa says, “COP 21 saw the birth of the Agreement. In Poland, as I call it Paris 2.0, we will put together the pieces, directions and guidelines in order to make the framework really operate.”

What Happened at COP 21?

Every year since 1995, the nations part of the UNFCCC have come together for a COP meeting (see above). Each of these conferences is held to discuss how the world can work together to solve climate change.

These conferences achieved varying degrees of success (with 2009’s Copenhagen a notable letdown), but even ahead of COP 21 in 2015, we knew this one would be different. As Climate Reality’s president and CEO, Ken Berlin, said ahead of the event, “We’ve been waiting years for this moment. Let’s make it count.”

The negotiations in Paris lasted two long, heated weeks. And that’s what COP 21 was, a negotiation. Diplomats and leaders, as well as NGOs and civil society representatives, were working together (and fighting together) to nail down the exact language of the Paris Agreement – the exact language on how the world was going to come together and stop climate change.

Right up until the last minute, things were tense. There were plenty of reasons to believe that the world wouldn’t get a strong, ambitious climate agreement. As our own Ethan Spaner said at the time, “If you want to know what tension looks like, stand in a room full of people who’ve spent decades working on a deal quite literally to save the world, only to see it one word from falling apart at the last possible moment.”

But against all odds, it didn’t fall apart – the world adopted the Paris Agreement and less than a year later, it entered into force and began working (more on that below).

What Happened After Paris?

The Paris Agreement was adopted in December of 2015. Then, on Earth Day in 2016, 175 nations signed and publicly committed to the agreement. And finally, the Paris Agreement entered into force in November 2016 – after more than 55 parties (representing more than 55 percent of global emissions) formally joined it at home.

To explain that phrase – “enter into force” – as we said at the time, “At its simplest, entry into force means that the compulsory elements of the agreement become binding on the parties who have joined. It also means the voluntary elements – or let’s say strongly encouraged elements – are also triggered into motion.”

Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon captured the spirit of the moment: “What was once unthinkable is now unstoppable.” With the Paris Agreement in full force, countries are bound to work on the goals in their NDCs and report on their progress.

It was an incredible moment, no two ways about it. But with scientists clear that current NDCs won’t meet the 2 degrees of warming or less target, the challenge now is to get countries to make their NDCs more and more ambitious – and as soon as possible.

In fact, the agreement now in force requires them to do just that.

A video from Grist, detailing the conferences that led up to COP 21 in Paris.

I Heard the US Is Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. Is that True?

In June of 2017, President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement. But – and this is important – the US has not officially withdrawn from the Paris Agreement and cannot officially do so until November of 2020.

Unfortunately, the Trump Administration is working to rollback America’s Clean Power Plan – one of the key federal tools for the US to meet its Paris commitments. All this might all sound like bad news (and it’s not great, that’s for sure), but it certainly isn’t the end of the world.

Get this: Seven out of 10 Americans see the climate changing and want our government to act. And in the time since the announcement, American states, cities, and businesses have continued to push forward on aggressive climate action without the federal government.

And so has the rest of the world. Every other country – and even states like North Korea and Syria – remain part of the deal. Only the White House (and even in the US, it pretty much is only the White House) wants out.

Need some climate hope? We have it in spades: India and France are leading the way to a brighter future for developing nations with the International Solar Alliance; China recently launched the world’s largest carbon market; and Costa Rica has run largely on renewable energy since 2014.

The bottom line is this: The world is moving forward on climate action and the Paris Agreement, with or without the Trump Administration.

How Can I Take Action to Help?

Header image: ©2015 UN Climate Change/Flickr cc by 2.0