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What does the Paris Agreement actually do and why is it so important?

Everything you need to know before Donald Trump burns the planet into oblivion

What does the Paris Agreement actually do and why is it so important?
02 June 2017

So Donald Trump is pulling America out of the Paris Agreement and it’s the end of the world as we know it (again).

But are you busy condemning the move while nervously thinking, “I know this is bad, but I’m not exactly sure of the specifics. Does that make me a bad person?”

If that’s the case, our answers would be: “That’s understandable”, and “No, you can’t be a bad person because you’ve clicked on this link to find out more and educate yourself in a nice, bite-sized internet fashion”.

So let’s crack on, because we’re running out of time.

Me irl

What is the Paris agreement?

The ‘Accord de Paris’ to give it its French title, is an agreement signed by 195 countries to deal with “greenhouse gas emissions mitigation, adaptation and finance”. It was drafted in Paris between November and December 2015 and signed in New York in April 2016.

The only countries who have not signed are Nicaragua – who believe the agreement doesn’t go far enough and is pursuing its own, more aggressive climate change-tackling action – and Syria, who have not signed due to their ongoing civil war.

The Agreement consists of four simple things:

  1. It sets a global goal of keeping global average temperatures from rising by 2 °C by 2100, with an urge to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C”
  2. It sets a ‘non-binding’ agreement for countries to reach peak greenhouse gas emissions “as soon as possible”
  3. It creates a framework for countries to become more “aggressive” in reaching those goals over time
  4. It asks richer countries to help poorer countries by giving them capital to invest in green technologies, but also to help them adapt to the effects of climate change that will occur in the coming years

Why is it important?

The agreement was an historic moment in the world’s attempt to tackle change – and yet, much of it is non-binding.

But it achieved several momentous things:

  1. It brought, for the first time, virtually every country on Earth together to put in place a way forward to tackle climate change
  2. It brought acknowledgement, for the first time, from every country on Earth that climate change was indeed real, and something that needs to be tackled
  3. It brought acknowledgement, for the first time, that rich countries – who are rich because of their ability to industrialise, and burn the fossil fuels which have caused global warming thus far – should help poorer countries that aren’t responsible for climate change

Different countries have different responsibilities, depending on their developmental position in the world. Some are allowed to use fossil fuels for longer than others, some must contribute more than others – and each country’s emission-reducing targets are self-set. But it is a requirement to report on the progress of hitting those targets.

Why is 2 °C the target?

There has already been a 1.3 °C rise in average global temperatures since 1880 levels, and we are already seeing the effects of climate change.

2 °C is, essentially, a political target. It is a round number that the world can work towards. Broadly speaking, a rise of more than 2 °C would have disastrous consequences for the viability of life on Earth. It is possible that even 1.5 °C would not be enough, due to various feedback loops that may kick in and increase temperatures regardless.

US Secretary of State John Kerry kisses his granddaughter after signing the Paris Agreement in Apr 2016

So why was it such an achievement?

On the face of it, agreeing a way to tackle the greatest existential threat we face as a species should not have been a hard thing to accomplish. Virtually the entire world believes that global warming is real, that it is happening, and that it is a problem.

However, the practicality of politics requires that each country’s politicians have to take a deal back to their people that they can convince them means that they’re not getting a worse deal than everyone else. International politics is, essentially, a game of "how can democratically elected people all agree to something while telling their voters they're not getting screwed”.

The Paris Agreement managed to get almost every country on Earth to all move in the direction, all at once. That is some achievement.

So while 2 °C may not be sufficient, it was a number which everyone could agree on in order to come to the table and get things moving. The belief – and hope – is that once everything gets going, and the planet takes that first step on the road, then it will be far more possible to increase the speed of travel at a later date.

So what are the criticisms of it?

The main problem of the deal is its lack of enforcement mechanisms. No one will face fines or sanctions if they don’t hit their targets. However, those who do miss them will face other punishments: scorn from the international community and a reduced standing within it – and also of missing out on making money from supplying the green technologies which form a large part of the aid provided to poorer countries.

Why has Donald Trump pulled America out of the deal?

Trump’s reasoning is simply that America has a bad deal. He claims that other countries are not contributing as much as America and so it is unfair to them. That, of course, is a matter of opinion.

In reality, Donald Trump was in-part elected on the promise of bring back jobs to the US coal industry. He also has huge ties to oil companies – his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is the former president of Exxon, a huge oil company.

Is it a bad deal, or is it a short-term way to preserve and create jobs in the US at the expense of a global effort? You decide.

Anti-Trump climate change protest in New York yesterday

Why is it a bad thing?

There is very little to recommend Trump’s actions on any level. While, obviously, coal jobs in the short term could come back, there is the potential to create far more jobs in the growing renewables sector and the providing of renewable technology to developing countries – and America stands to miss out on all of those by pulling out.

It also hugely diminishes America’s standing in the international community – they were the leaders, now they are the outcasts. Simply put, Trump’s actions look short-sighted, short-termist, and selfish.

Will it actually have a big impact?

Some good news: the path which Donald Trump has chosen to withdraw from the agreement will take four years to happen – by which time he could be out of office. The next incumbent of the White House could simply hit reverse and get America straight back in. Also, individual states and cities are pledging to continue with their own targets regardless. Like many of Donald Trump’s plans, he could be hamstrung by the fact that nearly all the other people in positions of power don’t want them to happen and are able to resist.

He also says he simply wants to renegotiate the deal. So he could potentially see America back into the agreement – if a new deal is made. However, the likelihood of this happening seems remote; if America gets a better deal, then everyone else will want one and the entire system could break down. The joint statement issued by France, Germany and Italy (and tellingly, not joined by Theresa May’s UK) suggests that the rest of the world realises this – there can be no renegotiation, as we simply do not have the time not to act.

Interestingly, Trump could have chosen a different way of leaving the deal which would have meant it happening quicker. There remains the possibility that this is simply a way of honouring one of his campaign pledges and appeasing his supporters without actually having to do anything. As ever with Trump, who really knows?

(Images: Rex)