• Flynn Devine

The Paris Agreement: life saver or time waster?

The Paris Agreement, a symbolically monumental piece of legislation for the international battle against Global Warming, celebrated its 5th anniversary this year. So what is this agreement and why is it important?

The Issue

The Paris Agreement (PA) is, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC): “a legally binding international treaty on climate change”.

It was signed at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) in Paris in 2015, where 196 parties adopted it. Great Britain will now be hosting COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021, 5 years on from the signing of the PA.

The goal of the PA is to limit global temperature levels from rising above 2 Degrees Celsius (preferably 1.5 degrees) compared to 'Pre-Industrial levels'. This year signing nations announced their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which you can read about here, outlining their emission targets and their proposed route to reaching them. These are meant to be updated every 5 years, becoming more ambitious every time.

The History

To many IGOs (international organisations made up of States), the Paris Agreement is generally heralded as a great accomplishment. However there is, as always, contention surrounding this environmental policy.

Getting so many to sign such an accord is no doubt a great step for international cooperation, but the main criticism of the PA is that these targets may not be ambitious enough to curve global warming.

Although the PA as an overall agreement is legally binding, NDCs and many individual articles within it are not. Therefore, many within the international law community have dismissed these commitments as basically voluntary. Therefore, in theory, nations could ignore these aspects of the agreement if they so wished.

The most turbulent moment of the PA's recent history was Ex-President Donald Trump's withdrawal of the US from the agreement in 2017. This created concern in environmental circles and the world at large as, without a pledge of lowering emissions, the US would continue as one of the largest polluters and completely undermine any mitigation done by other nations.

However, President Jo Biden has now reaffirmed the US' commitment to the PA, creating relief for many, but fear of complacency for others.

The international Dimension

This accord is wholly international. Although it is down to nations to individually set their own NDCs, for this to succeed all parties must work together. This, however, is easier said than done.

One of the largest debates in international environmental policy is who should take most of the burden when it comes to making changes. Generally speaking, those who emit the least often also suffer the most. Many countries in the Global South who feel the largest effects of weather changes and natural disasters are putting less greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than consumer rich countries like the USA.

Therefore the questions is: should those more wealthy nations, who have already prospered from their industrial boom, take a hit and give those still growing countries make slower change? Or should every nation lower their greenhouse output equally?

Power politics however, seems to take the wheel here. During negotiations of the agreement the voices of huge polluters like the US, China and India, who wanted a mostly non-binding agreement, completely overshadowed the more affected countries who largely called for an agreement imposing hard legally binding provisions.

We see here a misbalance in the political system, where those polluting the most, but often feeling the least, are needed at the table for an agreement to succeed. But of course these countries aren't feeling the same sense or urgency as other, more vulnerable states and therefore promote less ambitious policy.


Currently, the largest unknown is whether nations will stick to their NDCs and, if they do, how effective they will be in reducing global warming. 2021 will be critical for the future of the planet: the decisions that are, or are not, made this year will largely decide the outcome of the climate and ecological crisis.