Paris Climate Agreement: Everything You Need to Know

What Are the Paris Agreement’s Costs?

There’s a lot of misinformation out there about the Paris Agreement, including the idea that it will hurt the U.S. economy. That was among a number of unfounded claims Trump repeated in his 2017 Rose Garden address, arguing that the accord would cost the U.S. economy $3 trillion by 2040 and $2.7 million jobs by 2025, making us less competitive against China and India. But as fact checkers noted, these statistics originated from a debunked March 2017 study that exaggerated the future costs of emissions reductions, underestimated advances in energy efficiency and clean energy technologies, and outright ignored the huge health and economic costs of climate change itself. Climate change is already costing public health. Research from NRDC scientists shows how inaction on climate change is responsible for many billions in health costs each year in just the United States—as communities around the world experience greater displacement, illness, famine, water shortages, civil strife, and death.

Research makes clear that the cost of climate inaction far outweighs the cost of reducing carbon pollution. One 2018 study suggests that if the United States failed to meet its Paris climate goals, it could cost the economy as much as $6 trillion in the coming decades. A worldwide failure to meet the NDCs currently laid out in the agreement could reduce global GDP more than 25 percent by century’s end. Meanwhile, another study estimates that meeting—or even exceeding—the Paris goals via infrastructure investments in both clean energy and energy efficiency could have major global rewards—to the tune of some $19 trillion.

In terms of employment, the clean energy sector employed more than 3 million Americans before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic—about 14 times the number of coal, gas, oil, and other fossil fuel industry workers—and has the potential to employ many more with further investments in energy efficiency, renewable energy, and electric grid modernization to replace the aging coal-powered infrastructure. Meanwhile, coal jobs aren’t so much being transferred “out of America” as they are falling victim to market forces as renewable and natural gas prices decline. But supporting policies that promote an equitable transition—with community-led decision-making, a focus on equity, and retraining support—is an important means to helping communities leave the dirty energy economy behind them.

Finally, rather than giving China and India a pass to pollute, as Trump claimed, the pact represents the first time those two major developing economies have agreed to concrete and time-bound climate commitments. Both countries, which are already poised to lead the world in renewable energy, have made significant progress to meet their Paris goals. And after Trump announced his intent to withdraw the United States from the accord, the leaders of China and India reaffirmed their commitment and continued to implement domestic measures toward achieving their targets.

President George H. W. Bush signs the Earth Pledge at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro.

M. Frustino/Associated Press

International Agreements on Climate Change

The Paris Agreement is the culmination of decades of international efforts to combat climate change. Here is a brief history.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush joined 107 other heads of state at the Rio Earth Summit in Brazil to adopt a series of environmental agreements, including the UNFCCC framework that remains in effect today. The international treaty aimed to prevent dangerous human interference with earth’s climate systems over the long term. The pact set no limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual countries and contained no enforcement mechanisms, but instead established a framework for international negotiations of future agreements, or protocols, to set binding emissions targets. Participating countries meet annually at a Conference of the Parties (COP) to assess their progress and continue talks on how to best tackle climate change.

Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol, a landmark environmental treaty that was adopted in 1997 at the COP 3 in Japan, represents the first time nations agreed to legally mandated, country-specific emissions reduction targets. The protocol, which didn’t go into effect until 2005, set binding emissions reduction targets for developed countries only, on the premise that they were responsible for most of the earth’s high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. The United States initially signed the agreement but never ratified it; President George W. Bush argued that the deal would hurt the U.S. economy since developing nations such as China and India were not included. Without the participation of those three countries, the treaty’s effectiveness proved limited, with its targets covering only a small fraction of total global emissions.

The Kyoto Protocol’s initial commitment period extended through 2012. That year, at the COP 18 in Doha, Qatar, delegates agreed to extend the accord until 2020 (without some developed nations, which had dropped out). They also reaffirmed their 2011 pledge from the COP 17 in Durban, South Africa, to create a new, comprehensive climate treaty by 2015 that would require all big emitters not included in the Kyoto Protocol—such as China, India, and the United States—to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The new treaty—what would become the Paris Agreement—was to fully replace the Kyoto Protocol by 2020. However, the Paris accord went into effect earlier than expected, in November 2016.

Kyoto Protocol Versus the Paris Agreement

While the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement both set out to address climate change, there are some key differences between them.

Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, which established top-down legally binding emissions reduction targets (as well as penalties for noncompliance) for developed nations only, the Paris Agreement requires that all countries—rich, poor, developed, and developing—do their part and slash greenhouse gas emissions. To that end, greater flexibility and national ownership is built into the Paris Agreement: No language is included about the commitments countries should make; nations can set their own emissions targets (NDCs) consistent with their level of development and technological advancement.

While the Paris Agreement doesn’t have harsh penalties for countries not meeting their targets, it does have a robust system of monitoring, reporting, and reassessing individual and collective country targets over time in order to move the world closer to the broader objectives of the deal. And the agreement sets forth a requirement for countries to announce their next round of targets every five years—unlike the Kyoto Protocol, which aimed for that objective but didn’t include a specific requirement to achieve it.

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