History is Made as the Paris Agreement Becomes International Law

by Navy Thompson

Photo: Flickr.com/UNclimatechange

On November 4, 2016, the world’s first binding, universal global climate change agreement became international law.

The Paris Agreement has officially entered into force after achieving its threshold conditions: more than fifty-five countries that together account for at least an estimated fifty-five percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions have become parties. According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s web page, 100 parties have so far ratified the Agreement as of November 6, while another ninety-seven have yet to take such actions. Countries that have ratified the Paris Agreement and who have thus pledged to take substantial measures to combat climate change are some of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters, including the United States and China.

Initially adopted on December 12, 2015, during the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement aims to combat climate change and its effects internationally through concerted efforts to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and their impacts. Accordingly, the Agreement aims to hold the future increase in the global average temperature below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as well as to make efforts to limit the rise in temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels during the twenty-first century. It also aims to bolster countries’ abilities to manage the impacts that will likely result from future climate change, in part through the strengthening and financing of climate resilience and development involving low greenhouse gas emissions.

However, exactly how the international community and individual countries implement the Paris Agreement remains to be seen. Governments have to submit their own action plans detailing how they will mitigate and manage the impacts of climate change nationally, as well as their efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Each government’s plan to combat climate change nationally will then be augmented over time, and will be replaced by more aggressive measures every five years. Country representatives will gather at the COP22 climate change meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco from November 7-18 to discuss details regarding the Paris Agreement’s implementation.

While many in the scientific community have praised the speed with which the Paris Agreement has come into force (previous projections gave 2020 as the year it would likely take effect), the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) has expressed continued concern for the future of the global climate. UNEP believes that the international community will need to decrease yearly greenhouse gas emissions by twelve to fourteen billion metric tons before 2030 for limiting climate change to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) to be feasible. Even taking account of the promised reductions included in the Paris Agreement, the planet will likely still experience 2.9 to 3.4 degrees Celsius of warming, well above the desired figures.

Time will tell how effective the Paris Agreement will truly be in achieving its goals as countries develop and implement their own plans for reducing the emission of greenhouse gases and for fighting climate change more generally. What is clear now is that the Paris Agreement marks a positive and unprecedented historical initiative in the global effort to combat climate change and to protect the world’s people and environments from its effects. More broadly, it may pave the way for a more coordinated and united international political and legal community—one that is ready and prepared to tackle the world’s challenges as they arise.