The Paris Agreement at 5: The Road To Paris — the Origins of the Agreement

Secretary of State Kerry signs the Paris Agreement       Photo: U.S. Department of State

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 recap its origins. 

By Monica Medina and Ashira Morris, ODP Contributing Writer

The Paris Agreement is the latest in a series of global accords negotiated through the structure of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which which formed the basis for international climate cooperation since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 attended by President George H.W. Bush (41). Their first step was a very basic one but important one: admitting there was a problem. In 1997, the developed countries of the world agreed to legally-binding targets to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions for the first time in the Kyoto Protocol.  The rationale was that industrialized countries were overwhelmingly responsible for causing global warming and could afford to take actions needed to cut their emissions.

Why This Matters:  President George Bush (43) argued that the Protocol would put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage to China and India, and as a result the U.S. never ratified it. Without these three nations, the Kyoto Protocol would only have a limited effect.  So the members of the Protocol set out to create a new, comprehensive climate treaty by 2015 that would require all big emitters to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. And with the election of President Barack Obama, the U.S. took a lead in those negotiations, which resulted in the Paris Agreement.

The Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol was a key part of the journey toward the creation and adoption of the Paris Agreement 18 years later. It was the first legally binding global promise to address climate change. Solving such a large global problem requires a global solution, with the countries who have caused the most harm and emissions taking the lead. The Kyoto Protocol was an important step in that process. 

The 38 industrialized countries that signed on were required to reduce their emissions by 5% below the 1990 level from 2008-2012. Developing countries (which included India, China, and Brazil) had no explicit requirements but were encouraged to adopt green energy policies. This top-down approach is different from the Paris Agreement, which has every country that’s signed set emissions targets.  

The Parties begin: The Conference of the Parties, or COP, is the decision-making body that governs the convention. All countries that are part of the convention — which today is nearly every country — is represented at the annual meetings in cities around the world. Each meeting is called by its sequential number, and important agreements that emerge are named for the city where the COP was held. The Kyoto Protocol was adopted at COP 3, and the Paris Agreement at COP 21. 

Introduction of carbon credits: The Kyoto Protocol also established market-based mechanisms for offsetting emissions. The carbon credits were created as a way for richer countries to pay for green projects in poorer countries, and they’ve had a lasting impact. Conceptually, they are similar to the carbon markets today that are part of the Paris Agreement’s Article Six, which allows one country to pay for an emissions-reducing project in another, and have that reduction count toward its own goals. At last year’s COP 25 in Glasgow, the old carbon credits from the Kyoto Protocol system became a stumbling block for negotiations as countries that have old credits want them to carry over into the new Paris Accord accounting. 

“It is a ghost from the past in some way,” David Waskow, director of WRI’s climate initiative, told the Financial Times. “When you look at the final text, you can see that the Kyoto carry-over question was where the nub of the final issue lay — that was where things really did not get resolved.”

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