Have You Ever?
You just finished eating lunch in the cafeteria with your friends when the bell rings. As you watch students pack up and head to class, you notice that a lot of them don’t clean up after themselves. Not everyone is contributing equally to the trash in the cafeteria, but regardless, the cafeteria is left dirty with the expectation that the custodian will clean up. But if each student starts throwing their trash away, the cafeteria would remain clean every day.
This scenario can be compared to climate change. While different actors aren’t equal contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, everyone bears the same costs: a planet that is warming rapidly. The Paris Agreement is similar to bringing the student body together to clean the cafeteria. All nations in the agreement acknowledge their role in contributing to climate change and have agreed to cooperate in efforts to mitigate it.
Definition: Paris Accord
In 2015, 195 nations met to respond to the severe environmental damage caused by humans. They held the 21st Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change near Paris, France, and drafted the Paris Accord. Also known as the Paris Agreement, the Paris Accord is a global agreement that was launched in 2016 dealing with greenhouse gas emission mitigation, adaptation, and finance to tackle climate change.
How it Works
The Paris Accord replaced the Kyoto Protocol, which failed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because signatories didn’t meet their targets, and the biggest emitters, China and the United States, were not bound by the protocol. The Paris Accord was drafted to demand more participation globally while remaining flexible.
The Paris Accord has three principal aims:
- Limit the total emission of greenhouse gases.
- Create a framework that allows for transparency, accountability, and adaptability.
- Mobilize support for climate change mitigation efforts in developing nations.
To limit greenhouse gas emissions, the Paris Accord aims to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius. The agreement also encourages nations to become carbon neutral by 2050, which means emitting the same amount of carbon dioxide into the environment as they absorb. Each country individually drafted its targets in “nationally determined contributions,” or NDCs. The target for each country varies in scope and ambition because each country varies in its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and resources.
Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, which mandated targets for each country and had legal penalties, the Paris Accord is voluntary. Each nation decides what’s possible, and there is no legal or financial penalty if the goals aren’t accomplished. However, nations are required to report greenhouse gas inventories relative to their targets and adjust their targets every five years. This framework for transparency and accountability creates a sense of global peer pressure that encourages nations to be proactive in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Lastly, the Paris Accord promotes cash flow from developed to developing countries that need help achieving their targets. This is based on the idea that developing nations have contributed the least to climate change, but will likely suffer the most from its effects. While developed nations can rebuild, developing nations have greater food and water insecurity and weaker infrastructure, forcing people to stay in subpar living conditions or become climate refugees.
Furthermore, countries with large economies were able to become successful partly due to their ability to use fossil fuels and release an unlimited amount of carbon dioxide into the environment. However, based on the Paris Accord, developing nations cannot grow using the same resources and techniques. To combat this unfairness, the Paris Accord encourages wealthier nations to assist developing nations financially as they grow their economies sustainably.
United States Involvement
A major controversy surrounding the Paris Agreement is the United States’ involvement. The United States signed the Paris Agreement in 2015 under the Obama administration and formally joined in September 2016. However, the Trump administration withdrew from this agreement in August 2017, sparking outrage and debate. Supporters of the decision to withdraw argue that the Paris Agreement harms United States’ taxpayers, raises costs, and has negligible effects on the environment.
However, many people criticized the decision to withdraw. Environmentalists argued that the United States makes up 4% of the global population, but contributes to around 15% of greenhouse gas emissions. Economists argued that if the United States does not invest in the clean energy sector, it will lag economically. Furthermore, the withdrawal sparked fear that others would also leave. By withdrawing, the United States still reaps the benefits and bears none of the financial costs from global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Though President Joe Biden rejoined the Accord on his first day in office, progress towards reducing emissions on the scale necessary remains far behind schedule.
The Paris Accord marks the first time the entire world has mobilized to tackle climate change. We have used over half of the carbon budget, which is the carbon dioxide emission limit needed to keep the total global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius. Earth will become inhabitable a few generations from now. Earth has sustained life for millions of years - isn’t it time we make a global commitment to sustaining it in the future?