Paris Climate Agreement: Key Points

The Paris Agreement is one of the most heavily supported climate treaties. What are its key points? How does it compare to the Kyoto Protocol? Will it spur nations to take effective climate action? Will it help us to begin to resolve our climate crisis? In short will it be seen as a success or a failure? We provide some answers.
World leaders at the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015. Photo: Arnaud Bouissou (CC0 1.0)

Agreement Aims to Limit Warming to Well Below 2°C

The Paris Climate Agreement is an international agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which sets out a global response to our climate crisis by regulating the emission of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. 1 2

Influenced by the pessimistic forecasts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 3, the Paris treaty sets out to improve upon the Kyoto Protocol – a previous landmark agreement on global warming – by setting a more ambitious goal. Namely, to limit the increase in Earth’s average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit it even further to 1.5°C, in order to mitigate the worst effects.

In another improvement over Kyoto, the Paris Agreement seeks emissions from developing as well as industrialized countries, through a system of “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs), which are decided upon by each individual nation. The agreement covers climate change mitigation (removal of the causes of rising temperatures), as well as climate change adaptation (reduction of the impacts), and offers ongoing assistance to developing countries through technology transfer and supportive climate finance.

Although far from perfect – or even sufficient – the Paris Climate Agreement offers a much more ambitious set of climate action proposals than any of its predecessors while continuing to safeguard the ability of poorer countries to protect themselves from the effects of global warming in economic as well as ecological and humanitarian areas. But whether its proposed solutions will actually be implemented by its signatories, remains to be seen.

The Agreement was adopted at the UN COP21 conference in December 2015, and came into force in November 2016. As of April 2019, 195 UNFCCC members have signed the agreement, and 186 have become party to it. They include the United States (18 percent of global emissions), China (20 percent) and India (4.1 percent), although in June 2017, U.S. President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the agreement at the earliest opportunity (2020).

In late 2018, the Paris Climate Agreement was bolstered by the publication of the IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming Of 1.5°C, which reiterated the importance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C . The special report issued two stark warnings: that even limiting a rise to a more ‘realistic’ 2°C will not be enough to avoid environmental collapse of whole ecosystems. And secondly, if urgent action is not taken now to create a sustainable energy system, the 1.5°C ceiling may well be reached by 2030.

What Are The Key Points Of The Paris Agreement?

Paris Agreement Roadmap Goals
Paris Agreement: The roadmap ahead. The aim is for a 45 percent reduction of emissions by 2030 with respect to 2010. By 2050 nations must have achieved carbon neutrality, a balance of zero net emissions to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

Here is a short summary of the principal points of the Paris accord. 4

    It limits the increase in mean global temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius, while pushing for the even lower figure of 1.5°C. 5 According to John Schellnhuber, a scientific advisor to the German government, 1.5°C marks a threshold beyond which there is a serious danger of triggering “irreversible tipping points” in the world’s climate, with potentially catastrophic effects on the global environment.
    The aim is to reach peak emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) as soon as possible, while accepting that poorer countries will take longer to peak if they are to achieve essential economic growth. More significantly, signatories pledged to achieve net zero emissions between 2050 and 2100. 6 (According to the UN’s climate science panel, net zero emissions must take place no later than 2070 to avoid dangerous warming.)
    The Agreement sets out a process for each signatory to decide upon a nationally determined contribution (NDC) to achieve the global CO2 emissions target. 7 NDCs are the successor to the “quantified emissions limitation and reduction objective” (QUELROs) and “nationally appropriate mitigation actions” (NAMAs) employed by the Kyoto Protocol. 8 New NDCs should be submitted every five years and will be registered by the UNFCCC Secretariat. 9 Each new contribution should be more ambitious than the last.
    All nations should conserve all carbon sinks and reservoirs of GHGs – for example, by limiting deforestation and inappropriate land use. This is to maximize carbon sequestration – the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. 10
    The Agreement sets out a global goal on adaptation to reduce national and international vulnerability to climate change. 11 All signatories should make adaptation plans. Developing countries will receive technical and financial support to help them cushion the effects of global warming on humans.
    The Agreement significantly improves the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage, so as to assist more vulnerable countries in managing the consequences of climate change resulting from extreme weather events, such as sea-level rise and the like. 12
    The Agreement reiterates the U.N. climate action principle that developed nations have an obligation to support the efforts of developing countries to build sustainable, low-carbon communities. This will be done via the Financial Mechanism of the Convention, including the Green Climate Fund (a program of investments in low-emission technologies and climate-resilient development), and by technology transfer (the movement of skills and equipment from developed countries to less-developed countries). The draft text says that the countries “intend to continue their existing collective mobilisation goal through 2025”. That means the flow of $100 billion a year will continue beyond 2020. By 2025 the draft agreement undertakes to raise this further. 13 For more on the issue of Who Pays? see our article on the ethics of climate change.
    Education, training and public awareness of matters like climate change, energy conservation, renewable rather than fossil fuels, environmental science, is also to be enhanced. 14
    The Agreement has a robust transparency and accounting system to verify action and support by signatories, whilst giving due regard for their differing capabilities. In addition, a global stocktake 15 will take place in 2023 and every 5 years thereafter, to assess progress in reaching the goals of the Agreement. 14
    Does the Paris Agreement cover emissions from international air travel? No. As with the Kyoto Protocol, emissions of greenhouse gases caused by international air travel are outside the scope of the Paris Agreement, which covers only domestic air travel. Instead they are the responsibility of the specialist U.N. agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

What’s The Difference Between The Paris Agreement And The Kyoto Protocol?

There are three main differences.

First, unlike Kyoto, which sets targets for greenhouse gases that are legally binding, the Paris Climate Agreement emphasizes flexibility by allowing nations to set their own climate goals. These goals are policed using political name-and-shame pressure, rather than legal sanctions.

Second, while the Kyoto Protocol only targeted developed nations, Paris requires all parties to submit emissions reductions plans (called nationally determined contributions – NDCs).

Third, while Kyoto and other treaties required developed countries to set economy-wide caps on their national emissions – leaving developing countries to focus on specific programs, albeit voluntary – the Paris Agreement places no restriction on the type of plan (NDC) submitted. It can be region-based, sector-based, industry-based or a national target.


The Paris agreement is another landmark treaty in UN climate talks to counter critical environmental problems such as global warming and associated environmental pollution. First came the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer in 1987, then the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, then the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The latter became something of a dead duck because the world’s two largest carbon dioxide-emitting countries, the U.S. and China, did not participate. Although China signed the accord, as a developing country it was not required to cut its emissions, a fact used by the U.S. government to justify its non-ratification.

At the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP18) at Doha, Qatar, in 2012, which extended the Kyoto Protocol until 2020, it was decided to create a new, comprehensive climate treaty by 2015 that would mandate all countries to limit their emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other GHGs such as methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6).

But how to persuade all countries to sign up to new emissions targets? Answer: By allowing them to choose their own targets, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). This became a central feature of the Paris Agreement. By December 10, 2015, a total of 185 nations had submitted plans to reduce or limit their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 or earlier, although some less developed countries made their targets contingent upon receiving financial aid. India, for instance, estimated that at least $2.5 trillion would be needed to implement its own program of climate action through 2030.

Another set of proposals that became a feature of Paris, involved REDD+ (“Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries”). This issue was first raised at COP11 at Montreal in 2005, but the key REDD+ decisions were not finalized until the Paris Agreement.

Why The Paris Agreement Is A Success

According to Professor David G Victor, Chairman of the Global Agenda Council on Governance for Sustainability at the World Economic Forum, writing at the adoption of the Paris Climate Agreement in December 2015, the treaty was a victory for flexibility, which offers a way to build confidence among nation states that might, in time, get the ball rolling. It’s a similar strategy to the one that led to the highly effective coordination of trade policy, through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

But he cautioned that “a much more integrated global treaty will be needed to make major cuts in greenhouse gas emissions”, and that “the world has dithered for too long and must now brace for the consequences. Even a realistic crash program to cut emissions will blow through 2°C; 1.5°C is ridiculous.” 16

Why The Paris Agreement Is A Failure

  • Two articles in the British multidisciplinary scientific journal “Nature” say that, as of 2017, none of the major industrialized nations were implementing the climate action plans they had forecast and have not met their emission reduction targets. 17 Furthermore, the total of all promised reductions (as of 2016) would not limit global temperatures to the Agreement’s stated goal of “well below 2 °C”.18 19 Instead, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), they will result in a mean temperature rise of 3°C above pre-industrial levels (1850-1900), significantly above the 2°C of the Paris Climate Agreement. 20
  • Recent studies by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) into the real impact that the Paris Agreement may have on global temperature – using their Integrated Global System Modelling (IGSM) – concluded that the Paris Agreement would cause a reduction in temperature of about 0.6°C to 1.1°C compared to a do-nothing-scenario. 21
  • A 2018 study suggests that the irreversible tipping point – at which temperatures might rise to 4 or 5°C above 1850-1900 levels as a result of self-reinforcing feedbacks in the climate system – is below the 2°C temperature target, agreed upon by the Paris climate deal. In other words, cutting emissions alone will not control Earth warming. 22
  • Blunt criticism of the Paris Climate Agreement was voiced by James Hansen, a former NASA scientist and climate change expert, who labelled the Paris talks a fraud with ‘no action, just promises’ and said that only an across-the-board tax on CO2 emissions would force CO2 emissions down quickly enough to avoid catastrophic effects on the environment. 23
  • According to the Global Carbon Project, carbon emissions worldwide – largely stable from 2014 to 2016 – rose by 1.6 percent and 2.7 percent in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
  • A report by the Rhodium Group, an independent research organization, noted that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions had risen by 3.4 percent in 2018.
  • EU officials announced in 2018 that all member states were lagging behind on their 2020 emissions targets, with Sweden (77 percent), Portugal (66 percent), and France (65 percent) making the most progress. For more, see: Our Climate Plan Can’t Cope.

The Problem With Climate Treaties Like The Paris Agreement

Signatories to international climate agreements are invariably asked to commit to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. – usually to take effect several years in the future. What they are rarely asked, is this: How do you propose to replace all the emission-causing fossil fuels that you won’t be using by signing up to this pledge? – the coal in your electricity power plants, the petroleum in your cars, or the natural gas used for heating and cooking. That’s the problem. If you’re a country’s Prime Minister, it’s easier to commit to reducing emissions than to organize a replacement for the fossil fuels you’re accustomed to. It can be particularly difficult to organize a reliable energy supply based on renewable fuels like wind and solar power. This is one of the reasons why we have an Emissions Gap.

Global Emissions Gap Graph
Global greenhouse gas emissions and emissions gap by 2030. Report conclusion: “Unless global greenhouse gas emissions fall by 7.6 per cent each year between 2020 and 2030, the world will miss the opportunity to get on track towards the 1.5°C temperature goal of the Paris Agreement.” Source: UN Emissions Gap Report 2018.

Perhaps the only sure way of forcing governments and corporations to act is to impose a tax on major oil, gas and coal companies for the carbon contained in the fossil fuels they sell. According to the Heinrich Boll Foundation – an organization affiliated to the German Green Party – 90 fossil fuel companies are responsible for 63% of CO2 emissions from human activities. They include BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Gazprom, Saudi Aramco and Shell. 24


  1. United Nations. Paris Agreement: essential elements []
  2. European Commission: Paris Agreement. []
  3. IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (2014) []
  4. What is the Paris Agreement? []
  5. Article 2, Paris Climate Agreement. []
  6. Article 4. Paris Climate Agreement []
  7. Article 4. Paris Agreement []
  8. Article 3, 9(3). Paris Climate Agreement. []
  9. Article 4(9). Paris Agreement. []
  10. Article 5. Paris Agreement. []
  11. Article 7. Paris Agreement. []
  12. Article 8. Paris Climate Agreement. []
  13. Articles 9, 10, 11. Paris Climate Agreement. []
  14. Article 15. Paris Agreement. [][]
  15. Article 14. Paris Agreement. []
  16. Why Paris Worked: A Different Approach to Climate Diplomacy,” David G Victor. []
  17. Prove Paris was more than paper promises”. Nature. 548 (7665): 25–27. August 3, 2017. Victor, David G. et al; (3 August 2017). []
  18. Paris Agreement climate proposals need a boost to keep warming well below 2?°C. Nature 534, 631–639 (2016). Rogelj, J., den Elzen, M., Hohne, N. et al. []
  19. “The world has the right climate goals – but the wrong ambition levels to achieve them”. Washington Post. Mooney, Chris (29 June 2016). []
  20. “World on track for 3°C of warming under current global climate pledges, warns UN”. The Guardian. Harvey, Fiona (3 November 2016). []
  21. How much of a difference will the Paris Agreement make?” Mark Dwortzan (22 April 2016). []
  22. Domino-effect of climate events could push Earth into a ‘hothouse’ state”. The Guardian. 7 August 2018. []
  23. James Hansen, father of climate change awareness, calls Paris talks a fraud”. The Guardian. Dec 12, 2015. []
  24. Heinrich Boll Foundation []
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