Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement – a global call to action on climate change

After the 21st annual Conference of the Parties (COP21) came to the end of its two-week diplomatic marathon in December 2015, 189 nations committed to the Paris Agreement, representing 96 percent of global emissions.

The agreement entered into force on 4 November 2016, prior to the 1st COP under the agreement, held in Marrakech, Morocco.

Its objective is for the world to cut greenhouse gas emissions to a level intended to limit the global average temperature to 1.5C - 2C above pre-industrial levels (as at 1750). This is the level of warming deemed to be the point when, summarising, dangerous climate change has a 50% chance of threatening life on Earth.

The importance of the global reach of the Paris Agreement cannot be overstated. It relies on all countries working together.


However, US President Donald Trump announced in June 2017 he was withdrawing the US from the agreement, describing the deal as "totally disastrous, job killing, wealth knocking out". But Trump's move may not be permanent, with suggestions to foreign counterparts that he would be open to keeping the US in the agreement under the right terms.  Political observers in the US believe President Trump could use returning to the Paris Agreement as a talking point in the 2020 election to appeal to more moderate voters.

The other key aspect is that developing countries today produce the majority of the world's emissions, and, therefore, must form part of the global response to the climate change issue.

At Marrakech, world leaders called for the "momentum" to continue. That said, progress with fleshing out the Paris Agreement framework is proceeding at a slow pace. There are no signs of global carbon markets appearing any time soon, and these are crucial for the NZ Emissions Trading Scheme to work as intended. That is to provide for New Zealand to do "our fair share" while not being unfairly disadvantaged economically.

At stake is the future of the global economy and society. Rising sea levels will affect coastal infrastructure and low-lying island nations. Increased drought and other weather changes in parts of the world could trigger mass migrations, and the impoverishment of wellbeing of billions of people.

Under the Paris Agreement, signatories will each take voluntary action to reduce their own country's emissions.  Signatories will also co-operate on regular reviews of their actions, low-carbon technology transfer to developing countries, and creating markets for the international trading of emissions reductions.

China pledged to peak its emissions by 2030; however, there is no limit on what that peak could be, noting that BP projected in early 2017 that China would peak in its use of coal during the 2020s. This is an important question because China accounts currently for around 30% of global emissions.

BBC Environment reporter Mark Kinver writes: "If you live in an industrialised, developed nation then it all depends on how committed governments and leading businesses are to achieving the goal. It could affect how much tax you pay, it could affect how much it will cost you to run a car - it may affect how much it costs you to feed and clothe you and your family.

"But if nations do not commit to achieving the goal of limiting temperature rise to well below 2C, then the cost of adapting to the impact of changing climate system will also affect the cost of living."

At the heart of the Paris Agreement is a cyclical pledge-and-review of commitments, to keep the signatories and the process honest, and to increase the global level of commitment to reducing emissions. Parties submit their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to emissions reductions every five years, and these are supposed to become stricter with time. These national contributions will be evaluated and compared to the overall targets. These reviews are binding, as is the $US100bn fund from developed economies to help emerging and developing nations decarbonise their energy mix. This means moving away from burning fossil fuels to clean energy sources, such as nuclear and renewables, and/or preventing emissions entering the atmosphere via carbon capture and storage technologies, and/or offsetting emissions via cost-effective emissions reduction projects in other countries.

In Paris, New Zealand committed to reducing its GHG emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. While individual country targets are not legally binding, they have a strong moral force, and New Zealand intends to meet its commitment.

 As reported in the media, one serious problem is that adding all declared country targets together, if delivered, will still only stabilise the modelled global average temperature increase by plus 2.7C, well above the +1.5C - 2C goal of the Paris Agreement. Hence the periodic review of commitments to reach stricter targets.

"The problem4 is that over the last decade we haven't decarbonised our energy system. We have carbonised our energy system," says Ottmar Edenhofer, chief economist at the Potsdam Institute for climate change research.  

Governments around the world will now have to put decarbonisation at the heart of their fiscal policies - a big ask, going on the experience of climate change negotiations and country actions of recent decades.

The BBC's Mark Kinver warns: "There will have to be a paradigm shift in the philosophy of political parties. Lip service and nods, accompanied with a little tinkering will not be enough to deliver the aims of the Paris Agreement."

More information on the New Zealand Government's approach to dealing with climate change can be found on the Ministry for the Environment website.