What is the Paris Agreement and What’s the Science Behind it?

In December of 2015 official representatives from practically every country in the world gathered in Paris for what was know as COP21. The Paris Agreement was the result and fits in with several acronyms like COP21, namely UNFCCC and IPCC.

The UNFCCC is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change which was agreed to by virtually every nation on earth back in the 1990s. Under this convention the whole world has agreed to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human induced) interference with the climate system.”

The “COP” of COP21 stands for “Conference of the Parties.” The “21” means that the meeting in Paris in 2015 was the twenty first time that the countries who are signatories to the convention got together to talk about it. They talked about how they were doing on actually implementing the UNFCCC’s lofty goals and importantly also talked about what to do next.

When the UNFCCC mentions “dangerous interference with the climate system” it has solid science to go on in the form of the reports of the IPCC, which stands for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC’s first report in 1990 is what inspired the UNFCCC. It is the celebration of the IPCC that is the purpose of the graphic novel Because IPCC. Check it out.

In undertaking the Paris Agreement, 196 governments agreed to work to keep the world’s average temperature well below rising to 2°C above what it had been before the industrial revolution – and preferably to keep it below 1.5°C.

It’s notable that the number of countries initially signing up to the Paris Agreement is even more than the number of countries who are members of the UN. That’s 193.

To keep the global temperature below 1.5°C or 2°C rise over pre-industrial levels the Paris Agreement represents a legally binding international treaty by which each nation sets out its own goals and plans for reduction of emissions of greenhouse gasses. These goals and plans are called “NDCs,” another acronym, which stands for Nationally Determined Contributions.

Some NDCs are bold and some are less so. But the Paris Agreement signatories recognized that the NDCs they started out with are certainly not enough to limit global warming to 1.5°C or 2°C. So built into the Paris Agreement mechanism is a five year cycle in which every nation renews and strengthens its NDCs every five years. The first cycle came up in November 2020 but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, COP26 to be held in Glasgow, Scotland, was postponed until November 2021.

A button imploring visitors to share the book "Because IPCC" on social media. The button has a background image of a boy reading a graphic novel (actually a Superman comic book).

Beginning with COP26, LT-LEDS are also required. “LT-LEDS” is yet another acronym standing for Long-Term Low Greenhouse Gas Emission Development Strategies. The usefulness of LT-LEDS is to allow and encourage countries to evaluate what they are planning and achieving against the long term and broader global achievements. With LT-LEDS their NDCs can be refined in light of new science and the degree of success the world is having at avoiding 1.5°C temperature rise.

Signatories to the Paris Agreement are also bound to develop and report how much greenhouse gas is being produced in their jurisdiction. These reports are called “greenhouse gas inventories” and must be updated every two years. Countries must also report on their efforts at climate change adaptation plus are supposed to assist less able countries in developing their own adaptation responses.

A button imploring visitors to make a charitable donation - all donations used to promote the book "Because IPCC" to new readers. The button has a background image of a boy reading a graphic novel (actually a Superman comic book).

A final acronym is “ETF” which stands for Enhanced Transparency Framework, under which participating countries can see what other participants are doing, while having their own actions visible to the rest of the world.

The Paris Agreement came together at COP21 and continues to be relevant through COP26 because the urgency for dramatic progress on fighting climate change is real. It has been confirmed by the work of the IPCC. The twenty sixth Conference of the Parties belies the fact that for over thirty years scientists via the IPCC have been bringing the facts of climate change to the world’s attention. The most recent IPCC reports are the most conclusive about how real the phenomenon is, about how attributable to human cause, and how potentially damaging to our lifestyles, economies, health & wellbeing a failure would be to hold global heating below 1.5°C

Current projections have us overshooting that 2°C of warming by a considerable margin.

The IPCC methods are as solid as humanly achievable. You can be confident of that because for every IPCC report all the scientists in the world convince all the nations in the world to come to a consensus.

For more info on the IPCC — in a digestible form — check out the book Because IPCC.

It’s a short, 33 illustrated pages, an upbeat, entertaining story that explains the history and science of the IPCC. The scene is 100 years in the future when the world has “solved” climate change and people are looking back, inspired by the dedication, rigor and achievements of the scientists of today.

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