Paris agreement on climate: what it is and what it involves

The 2015 Paris Agreement represents a turning point at an international level regarding the process of ecological transition towards environmental sustainability in the fight against climate change. The Paris Agreement is the international treaty drawn up by the member states of the UNFCCC on 12 December 2015, on the occasion of COP 21 held at Le Bourget near Paris. Over the years there have been a total of 26 Conferences of the Parties (COP) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The most recent, in the autumn of 2021, was held in Glasgow, in the United Kingdom; the next, COP 27, will be held in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, while subsequent conferences are to be held in the United Arab Emirates and in Odessa, Ukraine. But what is the Paris Climate Agreement, what does it involve and how has the process triggered by this agreement developed over subsequent years?

What is the Paris Agreement on Climate Change?

The international scientific community is in agreement in identifying pollution from human activity as the principal cause of the climate change that is currently underway. This involves global warming, melting of the glaciers, an increase in extreme weather, heatwaves, droughts and serious threats to human health and to biodiversity in general. Taking action to combat the catastrophic consequences of climate change is crucial, and this is the objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Against this background, the Paris Agreement on climate change is the first universal, legally binding treaty aimed at combatting climate change: all previous COPs, starting with the first COP in Berlin in 1995, may be seen as preliminary stages in arriving at this international agreement. More specifically, the negotiation process started at COP 17 in Durban, and led to the negotiations between the 197 member states of the UNFCCC.

The Paris Agreement may be defined as an international legal framework that requires precise ratification laws in order to be actually implemented by the signatory countries. For the Paris Agreement to come into force, it had to be ratified by at least 55 countries, which would represent at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This objective was reached on 4 November 2016, a year after the Paris COP. Of the 197 member countries in the Convention, 191 have decided to become party to the Agreement, with a total of 195 signatories; all the member states of the EU have ratified the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

What does the Paris Agreement on climate change involve?

There are many actions required in order to implement the Paris Agreement, all of them very different. But there is only one objective of the international agreement: to take action at a global level to contain the increase in average global temperatures, keeping it to below 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels. As we will explain in more detail below, the primary objective to aim at is to limit this increase to 1.5 degrees centigrade. To achieve this requires a drastic decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. In order to make its own contribution to achieving these fundamental objectives, the European Union has committed to reducing polluting emissions by at least 55% by 2030, thus raising the bar compared to the commitment established in 2014, when the proposed reduction was 40%. However, this is only the first aim to be achieved: in fact, the EU is committed to achieving climate neutrality by 2050.

A wide range of different measures need to be implemented in order to ensure that global emissions can start to be reduced steadily, rapidly and in a concrete way: these involve divestment of fossil fuel energy sources, sustainable construction, the circular economy and so on.

Limiting temperature increase to 1.5 degrees centigrade

As we have seen, the principal objective of the Paris Agreement was to limit the increase in average global temperatures: in fact one effect of greenhouse gas emissions is global warming, which in turn sets in motion many destructive processes. The scientific community has calculated that to reduce the consequences of climate change, we should not pass the threshold of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Passing this limit, which is not only psychological, would mean seeing the arctic ice disappear entirely during the summer, a process that would lead to a further increase in temperatures as a result of greater absorption of heat by the sea water. It would also cause a rise in average sea levels, as well as a probable alteration of the Gulf Stream, causing enormous damage to agriculture and to the habitats of huge numbers of species, and so on. Keeping temperature increases below the level of 1.5 degrees centigrade therefore means saving the planet as we know it today.

Developments from the Paris Agreement

As we have seen, the Paris Agreement came into force at the end of 2016. Among the most important developments in subsequent years was the creation of the Katowice climate package, adopted during COP 24 in 2018: this contains a rulebook of procedures and regulations that enable the Agreements made at COP 21 in France to be implemented.

At the latest COP, held in the United Kingdom as we noted earlier, it was emphasized that the progress made so far was not sufficient to ensure achievement of the objectives set out in the Paris Agreement. At the end of COP 26 it was therefore decided to scale up investment in tackling climate change, and a global commitment was made to reduce methane gas emissions by at least 30% by the end of the decade.

In early 2022 the EU Council reiterated the need to act systematically to combat climate change, inviting all the developed countries to do their best to respect the collective objective of mobilizing 100 billion dollars a year to finance the necessary sustainable investments at a global level.