What is the agreement and why does it matter?

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change is a legally binding promise between, at present, 103 member states of the UN, which sets out an action plan to tackle climate change. It entered into force on 4 November this year, having achieved its threshold for implementation after it was ratified by 55 countries that produce at least 55% of the world’s greenhouse gases. It has since surpassed this, and new countries can keep signing up at will; for instance, Japan ratified the agreement on 8 November once it was already in force. A full list of members and the text of the agreement can be found on the United Nations website.

What have the member states promised to do?

The key pledge is that all signatories will work together to keep the increase in the global average temperature below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels if possible, and in any case below 2°C. Climate scientists have advised that if global temperatures rise above this point, serious, irreversible damage will result. To achieve this goal, the signatories have also agreed to work towards world emissions peaking as soon as possible, and declining sharply thereafter.

Will each country require a separate strategy?

Each signatory is already required to submit a national action plan on how it will contribute to achieving these goals. However, the action plans currently submitted are projected to result in a global average temperature rise of more than 3°C, so it is clear more has to be done. This is why the parties are currently meeting in Morocco at the ‘COP22’ talks to hammer out details which would be sufficient to meet their stated objectives.

So is this an effective way of tackling the biggest polluters?

By far the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases is China, which provides more than a fifth of the global total. Even considering its size, China still emits around a third more greenhouse gas per capita than its closest runner-up, the US. China has ratified the Paris Agreement, which is a great step forward, but in the text of the agreement there is a small accommodation which may in practice make a big difference.

The agreement provides that ‘in order to achieve the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2, parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognising that peaking will take longer for developing country parties’, one of which is China. There is, of course, the argument that fairness requires that countries which are developing be allowed to continue, as free as possible from constraints which did not apply to developed nations while they were industrialising. However, from the immediate perspective of the treaty and its effectiveness, this means that in the near future the biggest polluter’s emissions will be allowed to continue to rise, until this ‘peak’ is determined.

The participation of the second biggest polluter, the US, is also uncertain following Donald Trump’s election. The famous supporter of traditional industry, fossil fuels et al, who has previously described climate change as ‘fictional’, has pledged that he would withdraw the US from the agreement if he gained power. He could withdraw from the agreement, withdraw from the entire UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or, a more likely route, simply disobey the terms of the agreement. Whichever route he takes, if he does maintain his resolve, this turnaround from the US being a leader of the process throughout the Obama administration to being a vocal detractor could jeopardise the entire project.

Indeed, the Paris Agreement’s greatest strength may yet prove its greatest weakness; the accord ties member states together in joint responsibilities, the achievement of which hangs on cooperation. Certainly, a global approach to tackle a global problem is desirable, but with so many factors at play, it is also a risk.