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The Paris agreement is five years old. Is it working?

New climate commitments from China, the UK, and EU bring the world closer to the Paris goals.

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen making a speech at the virtual Climate Ambition Summit on December 12, 2020.
Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

A series of announcements over the weekend at a United Nations climate summit has bolstered hope that global emissions may still fall in line with the goals of the Paris agreement, heading off the more severe effects of climate change. These new pledges come in a year that was bound to be a significant test for the global agreement, even before the Trump administration's withdrawal from it and the global spread of Covid-19.

First, let’s rewind. Five years ago, 195 countries came together to forge the Paris accord after decades of failed attempts to comprehensively address climate change. The countries — including the US — collectively agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with holding average global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (with an aim of 1.5 degrees) to keep climate change in check.

But even with that goal established, whether countries voluntarily pursued it in earnest was always a gamble. The nonbinding agreement is structured so that countries themselves determine how fast to cut their emissions; there is no top-down enforcement of benchmarks for each country. The idea is that transparency will boost action: Countries submit their own pledges called nationally determined contributions (NDCs) every five years, and these plans are supposed to be increasingly ambitious, with the hope that they become strong enough to hold warming below 2 degrees.

Unfortunately, when Paris was adopted in 2015, the first round of pledges missed the mark. Climate Action Tracker estimated that the pledges would lead to 2.7 degrees Celsius of warming — to say nothing of what countries would actually manage to achieve. Which means a lot has been riding on the next round of pledges in 2020.

Obviously, this hasn’t been the 2020 that anyone had planned. Although all countries are supposed to submit new targets by the end of the month, many won’t file their plans until next year, ahead of the next major United Nations climate negotiations that were delayed due to the pandemic.

So far, only 22 countries have updated their NDCs, while 125 countries have pledged that they intend to improve their targets, according to Climate Watch.

But major new climate commitments from the European Union and the United Kingdom, among others, at last weekend’s virtual Climate Ambition Summit — held to mark the fifth anniversary of the Paris agreement — have increased the momentum heading into the new year. Chinese President Xi Jinping also announced updated NDC targets, which are a step forward, but not as ambitious as climate advocates had hoped.

“We are now seeing that countries are in fact ramping up ambition over time, and they are doing this despite some incredible hurdles that have been thrown up over the last few years, including the obviation of leadership from the US for a critical period of time,” said Taryn Fransen, a senior fellow in international climate governance at the World Resources Institute.

These new pledges from some of the world’s top emitters bring us closer to the Paris agreement goals, but a gap remains. In a video posted on Twitter last week, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg said, “the action needed is still nowhere in sight.” At this critical five-year anniversary, here’s where the agreement stands.

The world’s top historical emitters have stepped up (minus the US)

When it comes to cumulative emissions over time, the US, the EU, and China have contributed the greatest share, so they are key players in the Paris agreement. Since Trump announced the US would withdraw from it in 2017, the EU and China have helped ensure its survival. And at last weekend’s UN summit, European leaders made their biggest emission reduction commitments yet.

The UK — now broken out of the EU via Brexit — will host the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP 26), the major UN climate negotiations to be held in 2021. So its government was under particular pressure and scrutiny to come up with an ambitious new pledge.

Just before the summit in early December, the government announced a target to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 68 percent from 1990 levels by 2030 — a target it officially submitted as part of its new NDC during the Climate Ambition Summit.

According to Climate Action Tracker, this places the UK among the first countries to have an NDC that is compatible with the ambition of the Paris agreement, to keep temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

At the summit, the EU also committed to an aggressive new goal, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 55 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, up from the previous pledge of 40 percent.

EU leaders celebrated the commitment as a sign of Europe’s climate leadership. However, it falls slightly short of alignment with the Paris agreement’s 1.5 Celsius target, according to Climate Action Tracker (which estimates that a reduction somewhere between 58 and 70 percent would be needed).

Nonetheless, experts said these new commitments might help spur other countries to take more aggressive action than they’d been planning to.

“With the COP delayed to next year, ending this year with as many major economies that have seriously enhanced their NDC [as possible] is really important to put pressure on others to do that next year,” said Thom Woodroofe, a senior adviser to the president of the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former climate diplomat.

Is China the climate leader of 2020?

Of course, since China is the top emitter globally, its climate actions are central to the success of the Paris agreement.

In 2014, the US and China laid the foundation for the Paris agreement together, jointly announcing their targets ahead of the negotiations. Climate experts were relieved when China forged ahead after Trump announced the US would withdraw from the agreement.

Last weekend, Xi Jinping continued to make progress on climate, presenting a new set of targets at the Climate Ambition Summit.

These new pledges shouldn’t be taken for granted given the disruption of the pandemic and the breakdown in US-China relations, said Li Shuo, a senior climate policy officer at Greenpeace East Asia, during a webinar hosted by the Wilson Center China Environment Forum on Monday. “If we go simply back for a few months, many probably wouldn’t foresee any of those announcements, including the NDC enhancement, but also the carbon neutrality pledge,” he said, referring to Xi’s surprise announcement at the UN General Assembly in September that China will aim to be carbon-neutral by 2060.

The updates Xi announced at the Climate Ambition Summit on Saturday are more complex than the EU and UK emissions reduction numbers, because China’s NDC spans four targets. Woodroofe summarizes the changes from China’s original NDC in the handy chart below.

While the updates are a step forward, they could have gone further, said Woodroofe. “Really they are not headlining increases in ambition, and in many ways, they frankly replicate the trajectory that China is already on,” he said.

As he points out, Xi only committed to a subtle shift in the date when China will reach peak emissions from “around 2030” to “before 2030.” According to a study published by the Asia Society Policy Institute and Climate Analytics in November, China needs to peak its emissions by 2025 to be in line with the Paris agreement and its long-term emissions goals.

The carbon intensity target (a measure of carbon emissions per unit of GDP) would also have to be stronger than the new 65 percent baseline level Xi announced to be aligned with a 1.5-degree future.

On the more ambitious end, the new target for non-fossil fuel energy to reach 25 percent by 2030 (up from 20 percent) could spur much more aggressive renewable energy development, Lauri Myllyvirta wrote in Carbon Brief.

While the targets may be a boon for clean energy growth, they probably won’t cut significantly into fossil fuel use, Li said. China still has the largest number of coal power plants under development globally, which will lead to higher emissions, and none of the targets directly confront that issue.

The question remains: “How do we really find the political courage to say no to the long-standing development model that we have, which is heavily based on infrastructure investment and development?” according to Li.

China is likely to submit these new targets in an official NDC to the UN by the end of the year, he said, but there may be room for even more aggressive targets to be set in 2021. China will release its 14th Five-Year Plan in March, setting new economic, social, and environmental goals. And with President-elect Joe Biden taking office in January, China and the US are expected to reinstate diplomatic channels on climate change again. If the Biden administration can carry out bold climate action, that may give China the assurance it needs to be more ambitious as well.

But for now, “there is a big gap between what Xi has outlined China will do by 2030 and what he has outlined is his vision for China by 2060, and there is not an obvious way to reconcile that gap,” Woodroofe said.

Closing the emissions gap

Because the pandemic has disrupted the normal UN climate commitment cycle, it’s impossible to do a full accounting of how the Paris agreement has held up at its five-year anniversary. Countries will likely continue submitting updated NDCs until the next UN climate conference, COP 26, is held in November 2021.

But it is clear that China is not the only large economy to have a gap between its short-term targets and the long-term vision of decarbonization in line with the agreement.

In a statement published Saturday, Biden pledged that the US will rejoin the Paris agreement “on day one of my presidency”; he also committed to a long-term target of net-zero emissions by 2050. But the short-term target the US will put forward as its updated NDC once it rejoins Paris next year has yet to be announced.

“They are in a tough position because we have lost, essentially, four years under the current administration of going backward on climate action. So the Biden administration is going to need to come forward with something that will be viewed as ambitious enough to be credible by the international community,” said WRI’s Fransen, but “they will also need to come forward with something they can implement.”

Other Paris agreement laggards include Brazil and Russia, which submitted new NDCs but did not increase their stringency. Brazil actually submitted a new NDC that is weaker than its previous one, according to Fransen. Indonesia and Australia have also said they will not increase their ambition, Climate Action Tracker reports. Some significant emitters have committed to proposing higher targets but have yet to, including India.

The inaction — and in some cases backpedaling — from these countries is why Thunberg said on Saturday that the measures to make good on the Paris agreement are still not in sight. An increasing number of countries have committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, but, for Thunberg, these are merely “‘hopeful’ distant hypothetical targets,” while more ambitious short-term targets are needed to get the ball rolling.

Meanwhile, Fransen noted that countries particularly threatened by climate change continued to put forward ambitious targets at the summit. These countries, including island nations like the Maldives, are a “moral beacon” for the rest of the world, she said. For several island nations, the Paris agreement’s success is an existential quest: Many may become uninhabitable if the global temperature rises by 1.5 degrees.

The UN Environment Program’s latest emissions gap report, based on NDCs as of November, shows that without further action we are heading toward 3 degrees Celsius of warming.

For the countries and communities around the world most vulnerable to climate change, whether that gap is closed by new pledges over the coming months will be the real test of the Paris agreement.