Paris Agreement on Climate Change – What’s the Deal?

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change has formally lost the support of the United States. What does the deal actually say, and what does the US pull-out mean for the climate crisis? Find out more here.

I can still remember the delight on the face of Elizabeth May, Canada’s Green Party Leader.  It was just about four years ago, and the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change had just wrapped up

That’s a mouthful, and it may sound like a dull, bureaucratic affair.  It might help if I mention that most people called it COP 21, and it was the famous meeting where world leaders reached the Paris Agreement.

We’ve all heard of the Paris Agreement, and yesterday we all learned that the US Administration has begun the formal process to withdraw from it.  Still, I sense that very few people know what the agreement says.

Very few people know what the agreement says

They know it has something to do with climate change.  Whether or not they like the deal seems to depend more on their attitude toward the environment than it does on the terms and conditions it sets out.

The Paris Agreement is part of a much larger process dating all the way back to at least 1992.  That was the year of the famous Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.  After the Cold War ended, countries realized that there were some environmental problems that states couldn’t tackle on their own.

The new global dynamic presented an opportunity to cooperate, often for the first time.  The problems on the agenda were things like toxic ingredients in consumer goods, lack of public transportation, water quality and fossil fuels causing climate change.  Yes, world leaders knew all about climate change 27 years ago.

Rio Summit

One of the legally binding documents that came out of the Rio Summit was the Framework Convention on Climate Change.  The countries that are parties to the convention meet every year to report on progress and plan the next steps.

Each meeting is called a Conference of the Parties, and they get a number, like COP21.  At COP3 in Kyoto, the developed countries agreed on a protocol to cut back their greenhouse gas emissions over the years 2008–2012.  When it was about to run out, they extended it to 2020 at a meeting in Doha, Qatar.

The Paris Agreement is essentially Kyoto 2.0.  It’s meant to bring all nations together to combat climate change and adapt to its effects, which nobody has done before.  At this point, 187 parties out of 197 have ratified it.

Kyoto 2.0

Scientists told policymakers that we need to keep the rise in Earth’s temperature below 2˚ Celsius over pre-industrial levels and that 1.5˚ would be a lot better.  That’s all the Paris Agreement is meant to do.  As we were reminded yesterday, only one country in the world has not endorsed the Paris Agreement.  The  US  gave 13 reasons for its withdrawal.  None of them are valid.

I won’t wade through all of them, but I will address the three reasons the  US  government gives most frequently for not supporting the Paris Agreement.  These are:

  • It’s terrible for the US economy.
  • It unfairly benefits China and India at the expense of the United States
  • It sticks the US with paying a “vast fortune” to the Green Climate Fund set up under the deal.

“The Economy?”

The  US  government claims that the Paris Agreement would cost their economy three trillion dollars and 6.5 million industrial jobs, with average household income falling by $7,000.  This flies in the face of what economists tell us. 

For example, the OECD says that the G20 countries can expect economic growth of 5% by 2050 by encouraging green energy.  The think tank Global Food, Environment and Economic Dynamics (G-FEED) found that the  US  will be 5% poorer in the year 2100 if it withdraws from the Paris Agreement

It will also lose over $8 trillion.  Ten times more Americans work in green energy than in the fossil fuel business at this point

“China and India?”

Each party to the Paris agreement submits goals called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).  The countries aren’t assigned these contributions by some overbearing world government.

They come up with their NDCs themselves, voluntarily.  This includes the  US contribution.  In fact, it was the United States who suggested this approach to reflect the different circumstances each party faces.

China’s contribution was framed a bit vaguely at first.  China’s results, on the other hand, are readily apparent. China had already met its 2020 goal back in 2017.  You might suspect that news to be propaganda.  The truth is, it’s been verified by independent observers.

India is on track to meet its 2030 target by 2020.  That’s a full decade ahead of schedule.  India is rapidly pioneering fully electric vehicles. It will be producing 40% of its power from green sources by the end of this year

“Vast Fortune?”

The voluntary  US  pledge to the Green Energy Fund is $3 billion.  It had already paid $1 billion of that as of June 2017.  That’s when the United States abruptly pulled out of the Paris Agreement.

That seems like a lot of money to you and me, but it’s less than one-tenth of one percent of the US  Federal Budget, which is about $4 trillion.  France, Japan, Germany and the UK have all pledged more than $1 billion as well, even though they have smaller economies than the United States.

So, what does the Paris Agreement really say?  It covers a range of things, but here are the main points.  As we saw above, it sets a temperature goal.  It calls on the parties to independently come up with goals for mitigating the crisis — the NDC’s we discussed earlier.

What does the Paris Agreement really say?

It calls for voluntary cooperation between countries, using free-market or cooperative approaches—whatever works!  It sets up the Green Climate Fund to enable all developed countries to assist developing countries voluntarily.

The parties agreed to this because people in the third world haven’t benefitted from fossil fuel-based energy.  Despite this, they will have to pay the price for it in terms of climate change disrupting their rural and coastal ways of life.

As readers can see, America is shedding more heat than light on this topic.  As the second-largest carbon emitter int the world, they have a responsibility to lead the parties toward their Paris Agreement commitments. Besides, a big part of the thinking that went into this deal came from the US  government.

US can’t Pull out until November 6, 2020

The  US withdrawal is a step backward for the world, but it isn’t a disaster.  One ray of hope is that the US  pull-out can’t take effect until November 6, 2020. 

As luck would have it, that just happens to be the very next day after the next presidential election.  Here’s hoping that voters in the  United States learn more about the Paris Agreement and mandate a policy shift during the 2020 electoral process.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:

United Nations
Economic Times
Foreign Policy
Climate Crisis Becomes Undeniable
Why Do We Fight About the Climate Crisis?
How Much Science is Too Much?


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