What’s in the Paris Agreement anyway?

I’m so tired ya’ll

There’s a lot of misinformation out there about what the Paris Agreement is, what it obligates the United States to, and what it obligates countries like China and India to. So let’s take a look at this landmark agreement for ourselves.

There is a PDF version of this agreement in English hosted on the UN Climate Change Newsroom website if you want to read along at home. As always, I’m not a lawyer or a politician, just doing my best to understand the law.

The Paris Agreement


The agreement begins with a preamble about who the signers are and why they’re signing. The agreement was signed by countries who are parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (AKA The Earth Summit), which basically means the 154 countries who met in 1992 and agreed that climate change was a problem. It mentions the Durban Platform, a group of negotiations which resulted in this agreement. It mentions the objectives of the Convention, including common goals yet different responsibilities. It mentions the “urgent” need for an “effective and progressive response”; it mentions the needs of developing countries who will suffer greatly from climate-change related flooding, but it tempers that with their lack of funding and technology. It mentions that signers may suffer due to the affects to prevent climate change as well as by the effects of climate change, and it keeps in mind the desire to eradicate poverty. It also brings up food insecurity and the desire to end hunger, noting that climate change may cause famines. It mentions the desire to create new jobs. It brings up a whole host of other concerns that have to be kept in mind:

  • human rights,
  • the  right to health care,
  • the rights of indigenous peoples, migrants, children, persons with disabilities, and vulnerable persons
  • gender equality
  • empowerment of women
  • intergenerational equity
  • biodiversity
  • education
  • public access to education
  • cooperation at all levels of the government

And finally, it suggests that more developed countries take the lead in this effort.

Articles 1-3

Article 1 just contains some definitions.

Article 2 says that the purpose of this agreement is to strengthen the global response to climate change. It outlines the goals: hold the increase in global temperature to below 2 degrees celsius over pre-industrial levels, become more resilient to climate change, and directing money toward reducing greenhouse emissions. It spells out that different countries will take different roles in this agreement because each has different needs.

Article 3 says that each country will plan their own specific response to this agreement rather than the UN dictating what exactly they do.

Articles 4-5

Article 4 is pretty long, so it gets its own section; it’s long, however, because it’s the first bit that lays out what the signers are responsible for doing. Here’s what they have to do:

  • Reach peak greenhouse gasses as soon as possible, and reduce greenhouse emissions from there. It’s spelled out that this will take varying amounts of time for varying countries, but the aim is for the second half of this century (so 2050 and on)
  • Make a plan and communicate what it is
  • Make sure the plan is more aggressive than what they’re doing currently, rather than coasting on at the same rate
  • If they are a developed country, take the lead in this effort. If they are developing, just try their best.
  • Support developing countries’ efforts since they tend to be poor
  • The least developed countries and small islands get special consideration for their circumstances
  • Provide the information needed for clarity and transparency
  • Communicate on their progress every five years
  • Coordinate their time frames as well
  • Anyone at any time can decide to be more aggressive than their communicated plan
  • The secretariat will record everyone’s plans
  • Communicate the data needed to hold each country accountable with honesty, integrity, transparency, comparability (the same numbers reckoned according to the same method across the board), and consistency
  • Take into account existing methods and guidance from the committee
  • Take other countries into account when making their plans to minimize the impact for all
  • If they have agreed to act jointly, they need to tell the secretariat that
  • Be responsible for their own carbon emissions even when working in concert

Article five asks them to:

  • Preserve sinks of greenhouse gasses, such as forests
  • Continue upholding existing agreements, including reducing deforestation, conserving, and managing forests sustainably (aka replanting).

Article 6

Article six begins by specifying clearly that this is a voluntary agreement, and that therefore “cheating” (double-counting and so on) is going against the spirit of volunteering. Basically, it says nobody made you sign, so don’t go back on this agreement later or try to weasel out of it.

It then goes on to set up a meeting with the overall goal of reducing greenhouse gasses, which signatories to the agreement can attend on a voluntary basis. It also spells out that if someone counts an emission reduction which happened as a result of the meeting’s strategy as part of their contribution to the overall agreement, that exact reduction cannot be counted by another party. (For example, if the committee decides to spend a bunch of money to improve trains between Paris and Frankfurt, both France and Germany cannot claim that as part of their efforts; either can claim it, or neither, but not both). It spells out that money raised by the committee meetings outlined above should go toward paying administrative fees and helping developing nations meet their agreements. It spells out that rules and procedures will be decided by the committee.

Finally, article six mentions non-market, holistic approaches. This includes building capacity, adaptation, and finances. I’m not a hundred percent sure what approaches it’s talking about, but all this does is recognize that such approaches are important, and suggest that they be used.

Article 7

Article seven talks about resiliency and reducing vulnerability to climate change, so that the effects do not cause as much damage. The signing parties recognise that this is a valid and important concern, particularly for developing countries, since often it’s all they can do. Action taken to adapt should be driven by the individual countries, responsive to gender, and fully transparent, leaning on the best science we have as well as traditional and indigenous knowledge. The signing countries should strengthen their cooperation on this, including:

  • sharing information, lessons learned, and best practices
  • strengthening arrangements to share knowledge and provide technical support and guidance
  • improve climate science, early warning systems, and research so that better decisions can be made
  • helping developing countries make plans, identify needs, and prioritize
  • taking better and more durable actions

Non-country signers are urged to support countries in this. Each signer is asked to participate in planning and acting, including:

  • taking action
  • planning to take action
  • measuring climate change so they can take action
  • monitoring and measuring the effects of actions taken
  • building resilient economic and ecological systems, such as by managing natural resources in a sustainable way

(Real harsh terms, right? I hope you don’t think it’s me being vague: all of this is spelled out in vague, high-level terms like this)

Everyone who signs is supposed to come out with a personalized adaptation plan, making sure it doesn’t make life harder for developing countries. The plan shall be updated periodically, and recorded by the secretariat. International support shall be available for developing countries. Finally, the stocktake in Article 14 will recognize adaptation plans.

Articles 8-10

Article 8 spells out that preventing, minimizing, or handling damage due to climate change is also important. It upholds the existing Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts, and says that it can be enhanced or strengthened by the committee coming out of this agreement. It lays out some suggested areas for cooperation:

  • early warning systems
  • emergency preparation
  • slow onset events
  • events that involve permanent damage (I think we’re talking flood cleanup here)
  • risk assessment and management
  • risk insurance, risk pooling, and so on (like home insurance, but for countries)
  • non-economic losses
  • resilience of communities, livelihoods, and ecosystems

Article 9 asks developed countries (like the US) to offer money for developing countries (like India) to help them out with their plans. This needs to be scaled up from previous efforts, as they weren’t working fast enough. They have to report on this every two years in a transparent way, and the approval mechanism for developing countries to get the money should be simple and transparent. This is the Green Climate Fund, to which the US has pledged $3 billion; the goal was to get to $100 billion per year globally, and we’ve only paid $50 million of our pledge so far. You can see where the money comes from and goes to in their infographic portfolio website.

Article 10 talks about technology development and transfer, and urges parties to cooperate. It spells out that financial help may be available for this, and puts together a team to work on that aspect.

Articles 11-15

Article 11 talks about capacity building, particularly for island nations. This is talking about improving the ability of poorer, developing nations to actually implement these suggestions. It should, like everything else, be country-based, transparent, and routinely communicated on.

Article 12 basically just says that climate change education and access to information is important too.

Article 13 outlines a special concern for transparency. It sets up for a system to be put in place to ensure transparency without putting undue burden on the signers, and asks each signer to provide an inventory of emissions by source and removals by sink (forests remove carbon emissions) and the information needed to track their progress against their pledges. Developed countries are asked to provide information about how they’re contributing to help developing countries, and the latter are asked for information on how they’re receiving and spending the funds. All the information is subject to a technical expert review, akin to a peer review.

Article 14 establishes a “global stocktake” that will occur in 2023 and every five years after. It is meant to list out how everyone’s doing and whether we need to adjust course.

Article 15 establishes a committee to “promote compliance” in a way that is not adversarial, doesn’t punish anyone, and is transparent.

Articles 16-20

Article 16 basically says that the annual conference on climate change will serve as the meeting of the people who signed this agreement as well. Countries and organizations that signed other climate change agreements can watch, but cannot speak at this meeting. They’re allowed to set up sub-committees and so on to get things done. It was 2015 when this was held in Paris, so there’s only been one meeting since then.

Article 17 says that the secretariat of the Convention on Climate Change is the secretariat of this agreement as well, so there’s no need to appoint another one. Article 18 does the same for the sub-committee on scientific and technological advancement. Article 19 allows other sub-committees for the Convention to serve this agreement if the Convention wants them to.

Article 20 outlines when and how you’re allowed to sign the agreement, when and how you’re allowed to ask to sign it later, and who is bound when various special groups sign.

Articles 21-29

Article 21 explains when the treaty will take effect for each country. Article 22 explains that amendments are handled just like the previous Convention. Article 23 handles annexes by saying they’re just like the previous Convention. Article 24 covers disputes in the same way.

Article 25 explains that everyone who signs gets one vote, except that regional organizations get one vote for each of their members states. I believe this covers the EU.

Article 26 explains the Secretary-General is the one who receives signed copies, amendments, and withdrawals. Article 28 says you can withdraw from the agreement three years after it goes into force for you (so, for the US, 4 November 2019). The withdrawal cannot take place any sooner than one year later (so 4 November 2020). If you withdraw from the Convention on Climate Change, you also withdraw from the Paris Agreement. From reading that document, it has the exact same rules, meaning Trump can probably withdraw from the Paris Agreement in as little as a year by withdrawing from the Convention on Climate Change (which entered into force for the US back in 1994).

Article 29 says that the Secretary-General hangs onto the original agreement, in English, Spanish, Arabic, French, Chinese, and Russian.

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