Yale Experts Explain The Paris Climate Agreement

paris climate agreement header with image of eiffel tower
September 21, 2020
Global environmental legal expert Sue Biniaz and global environmental governance professor Maria Ivanova break down the international agreement meant to keep global temperatures in check.

What is the agreement?

National governments have been trying to negotiate solutions to global warming since 1992, when they concluded the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). After years of trial and error with different governance models, the Parties to the UNFCCC adopted the Paris Agreement in 2015. Sue Biniaz, Senior Fellow and Lecturer at the Yale Jackson Institute and former lead climate lawyer at the U.S. State Department, explains that the Paris Agreement has three main objectives:
  1. to limit the average global temperature increase to well below 2 degrees centigrade (and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees); 
  2. to enhance resilience to climate impacts, many of which will be unavoidable due to greenhouse gases already emitted; and
  3. to align financial flows in the world with these objectives.

How do countries participate?

One of the predecessors to the Paris Agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, contained emissions targets that countries negotiated with each other. Kyoto failed to cover much of the world’s emissions, as it excluded developing countries from commitments and the United States did not join. Negotiators of the Paris Agreement knew they had to take a different approach if they were to achieve global participation. The Paris Agreement provides for each Party to set its own emissions target, known as a “nationally determined contribution” or “NDC.” 
Biniaz explains that the “NDC” approach, which was proposed by the United States, addressed multiple challenges during the negotiation. For one, allowing countries to design their own targets sidestepped the need to label countries (e.g., as “developed” or “developing”) and focus on varying national circumstances. In addition, Biniaz explains that countries are more comfortable signing onto their own climate commitments, are more likely to implement them, and may even be more ambitious if they design their own targets.
Maria Ivanova, Associate Professor of Global Governance and Director of the Center for Governance and Sustainability at the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, says that to design a NDC, governments conduct an assessment of their country’s ability to reduce emissions – often based on the level of economic and industrial development – along with an assessment of the country’s vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. 
 “The NDCs level the playing field in a dynamic way,” Ivanova (’99MEM, ‘99IR, ’06PhD) says “We all recognize that we have a problem. We all recognize that even though some of us have not contributed to this problem historically, we still have a responsibility to do something about it.”

How do we track progress on the NDCs? 

The Paris Agreement provides for a “global stocktake” every five years, the first to take place in 2023. The participating countries will come together to assess the collective progress toward the Agreement’s objectives. Ivanova explains that this is a time for “healthy competition” where countries will share their successes and challenges and walk away with international best practices.
However, it is important to note that even if the initial NDC commitments are met, the work isn’t done. Each country is required to submit an updated version of its NDC every five years. Biniaz points out that, while not mandatory in the legal sense, it is a “political expectation” that each country’s updated NDC should be more ambitious than the last. “The Paris Agreement is deliberately designed to keep going … until achievement of the temperature objective,” Biniaz said, adding that the Agreement has no termination date. “Now, how many rounds [of NDC updates] will that be? Who knows?”

What happens if a country doesn’t meet its goal?

The Paris Agreement has a robust reporting and review process, so all participating governments will know if a country has not met or is not on track to meet its target. If this is the case, there is no formal penalty. There is a legal requirement to submit and update an NDC, but NDCs themselves are not legally binding. Biniaz describes the non-binding nature of NDCs to be “critical to the balance of the agreement.” She asserts that, with legally binding NDCs, the agreement would likely have lost the participation of key countries; the rigor of the commitments might also have suffered, as countries might fear failure to achieve them. 
Ivanova says that this style of agreement “changed the dynamic …rather than punishing behavior, now we are seeking to enable the attainment of an ambition.” She also emphasized that shifting the conversation from “name and shame” to “name and acclaim” could spur the productive competition necessary to attain an ambitious global vision. 

Where do individuals come into play?

At the individual level, do what you can to support this sub-national action. Consider getting involved in your local community’s climate action planning and read up on and support the institutions who have ‘signed on’ to the Agreement. Try calculating your personal carbon footprint using online tools and design your own commitment to reduce your emissions and advance these global goals, with steps like limiting your travel and exploring low-impact, virtual educational programs and social events.

What is Yale Doing?

Yale is leading the Global University Climate Forum, a one-year program designed to  bring student activists together to share ideas, learn, connect, and act on the global imperative of addressing climate change. In September, 134 multidisciplinary teams of students from 44 countries were accepted to the Forum based on their proposals for actionable projects. The nearly 500 accepted students participated in a series of workshops in November 9, and now that the workshops are done, students will execute and report on their ideas for six months. Successfully completed projects will be included in a publication to be issued during the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Glasgow, Scotland. Partners and sponsors  include the University of Edinburgh, the University of New South Wales, the University of Cape Town, the University of Tokyo, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico, the University of Copenhagen, Nottingham Trent University, the Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges, the International Alliance of Research Universities, the International Sustainable Campus Network, and the International Association of Universities.