You Should Know

You Should Know

What is the Paris Climate Agreement?

By Karen Weigert and Sam Tabory

More than 190 countries agreed at the COP21 UN climate conference in Paris to reduce carbon emissions in an attempt to mitigate the effects of climate change. What are the major points of the 2015 agreement, can President Trump withdraw the United States, and what role do cities play in the absence of federal climate action? Here’s what you should know.

The United Nations convenes a climate conference each year, including the pivotal 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) meeting in Paris in 2015.

All countries present at the Paris meeting agreed to set a goal to reduce carbon emissions to avoid exceeding a 2 degrees Celsius rise in the average global temperature “with the aspiration to avoid a 1.5 degrees increase.”

Countries set their own goals or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) - the United Nations did not mandate the reduction targets nor how they should be met.

The <2 degrees target is based on projections that the worst predicted effects of climate change – such as rising seas, intense storms, and extended droughts – could be minimized if the goal is met.

Globally, 2016 was the hottest year ever recorded, and 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001.

Current commitments made as part of the Paris deal reach only a 2.8 degrees target. Participating countries agreed to revisit pledges every five years to progressively “ratchet up” their commitments.

The Paris agreement entered into force in October 2016 when it met the threshold of ratification by at least 55 countries, representing 55 percent of global emissions, including major emitters such as China, India, and the United States.

The United States formally entered into the agreement in September 2016, when President Obama used an executive order to ratify the deal and committed to reducing US emissions by 26 to 28 percent (from 2005 levels) by 2025.

Since 2000, the United States has started to reduce carbon emissions while still growing its economy. Without additional action, this trend is expected to continue, but not at a rate fast enough for the United States to do its part in meeting the <2 degrees target.

The United States based its commitments largely on the Clean Power Plan and expanded fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards for vehicles, both of which face uncertainty under the Trump administration.

President Trump signed an executive order on March 28 that initiates a review of the Clean Power Plan and rescinds Obama-era executive orders aimed at curbing climate change and regulating carbon emissions. He also opened a review of CAFE standards.

Although the executive order did not address the Paris Agreement, the changes make it more difficult to honor US commitments. As a candidate, Trump said he planned to cancel the agreement. There are no official enforcement provisions.

According to public opinion surveys, 71 percent of Americans say the United States should participate in the agreement. Many companies support the agreement as well.

Cities play an important role in carbon reduction. They account for 70 percent of emissions globally, and major cities, especially coastal cities, are expected to be hardest hit by the possible effects of climate change.

Hundreds of mayors attended the 2015 Paris meeting, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon announced cities would receive formal recognition in UN climate negotiations moving forward.

Sixty-two American communities, including Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, DC, have set carbon emissions reduction goals that are equal to or greater than the US commitment in the Paris agreement.

This is one of many examples of cities driving solutions to pressing global challenges. Learn about others at the 2017 Chicago Forum on Global Cities.

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