The Paris Agreement at 5: Increasing Ambition

This Saturday, December 12, the United Nations and the U.K. will host a Climate Ambitions Summit to commemorate the Paris Agreement’s fifth anniversary and encourage countries to commit to more ambitious actions. This week ODP will take a deep dive into the Paris Agreement — today we look at how the agreement was designed to continue increasing global commitments to stop climate change.

By Ashira Morris, ODP Contributing Writer

A key feature of the Paris Agreement is that it’s not a static promise. Current climate policies won’t get the world to the target below 2 degrees C of warming, but the agreement was designed for countries to report progress and over time increase their efforts. Every five years, each country is supposed to submit new climate pledges that are more ambitious than their previous ones. Called the “ratchet mechanism” or “ambition mechanism,” the ongoing process continues to increase global commitment.

Why this Matters: Holding countries accountable for increasing commitments to address the climate crisis is essential because we’re nowhere near the level of meaningful action needed. The Climate Action Tracker assesses the US’s current plan and actions as “critically insufficient.” Globally, the independent scientific analysis estimates that even if everyone continues to follow their current plans, there’s still a close to 90% chance of going over the 2-degree threshold by the end of the century. And that goal set in 2015 now has an update of its own: a recent special report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that 1.5 degrees from the pre-industrial baseline are a more scientifically sound target. The planet has already warmed 1 degree C. To avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, it’s imperative that countries continue to update their climate plans — and act on them. 

“Paris is a vessel”

In the words of Sue Biniaz, the lead climate lawyer for the State Department and longtime climate negotiator, “Paris is a vessel. It’s only as good as what you put into it.” Right now, the US isn’t putting much into it, having officially withdrawn from the agreement on Nov. 4. But President-elect Biden has promised to rejoin on day one, putting the country back into thinking about how to take the framework and make it actionable. Biniaz has five suggestions for the new administration:

  1. Immediacy (rejoin ASAP)
  2. Ambition (show the US cares to step up)
  3. Credibility (the US has now walked away from both Kyoto and Paris: show we can stick around and deliver)
  4. Durability (ensure a future president can’t withdraw)
  5. Leverage (use global power to encourage other countries to also do more)

Following Paris plans would have near-term benefits: The long-term goals of the Paris Agreement are pegged to the end of the century, but acting now to keep temperatures within the more ambitious 1.5 degrees of warming would have benefits within the next two decades. According to a study published this week in Nature Climate Change, this is a “key period” for climate policy on everything from agriculture to adaptation for flooding. “In short, immediate and strong action on climate change can bring benefits within current lifetimes and not just far into the future,” Christine McKenna, one of the study’s authors told Carbon Brief

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