The Green Space | What’s the Deal with the Paris Climate Agreement?

The Green Space is a biweekly blog about all things environmental — whether we’re talking a mason-jar compost heap or the entire world.

By Sarah Stager, Contributing Editor

On his very first day of office, Jan. 20, President Joe Biden rejoined the international Paris Climate Agreement. Considering how swiftly the president hopped on this task, one might think that it’s quite important — and it is.

The agreement first came about in 2015, when 187 countries — accounting for 97% of the world’s emissions — agreed to create specific national reduction plans with the overall goal of keeping global temperature rise within 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels during the 21st century. The stretch goal is to keep global temperature rise within 1.5 degrees Celsius. Given that global temperatures have already risen 1.2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, this goal is indeed a stretch.

As of January 2021, 195 countries have signed the agreement, and 190 are parties to the law, meaning that they are obligated to follow the agreement. The United States is now one of those 190 countries.

Former President Donald Trump left the agreement in 2017, his reasoning being that other countries such as India and China use fossil fuels freely — why shouldn’t the United States as well? There are many reasons why this standpoint does not make much sense, but that’s another blog for another time. Because of UN regulations built into the agreement in anticipation of this exact situation, the United States could not officially withdraw from the agreement until Nov. 4, 2020 — the day after Trump lost his bid for re-election. Ah, how beautiful the world can be.

Luckily, the rejoining period isn’t nearly as long — it will only take 30 days after Jan. 20 for the United States to regain its position. Once the country officially reenters, the Biden administration will set a voluntary target to reduce emissions and submit a comprehensive plan for doing so. From that point on, the United States will report its progress regularly.

Because the administration hasn’t actually submitted its plan yet, we are still somewhat in the dark about how specifically Biden will coax the country into accordance with the agreement. Even though the country didn’t nominally leave the agreement until Nov. 4, participation in the agreement is ultimately voluntary, meaning that Trump still had the opportunity to wreak plenty of havoc on the environment through deregulation. That means that Biden, and his colleagues in Congress, must first labor to pull the country back to where we were pre-Trump, and then we can finally forge into the clean, green future.

But though the United States is important, we aren’t the only country in existence, and we aren’t even the current largest emitter of fossil fuels according to data from 2018, though we have contributed the most historically. When it comes to climate change, it’s nice to know what the rest of the world is up to, so let’s look at the climate plans, as submitted to the UN, of some other heavy hitters.

China, responsible for 28% of global fossil fuel emissions in 2018, needs an ambitious plan, and it delivered just that in 2015. The plan includes four major components — causing carbon emissions to peak by 2030, lowering carbon dioxide intensity by 60% to 65% from the 2005 level, increasing the use of non-fossil fuels (read: renewable energy) to account for about 20% of primary energy consumption and increasing forest volume by 4.5 billion cubic meters from 2005 levels.

Whew. That’s a lot to take in. Let’s break it down.

Though “peaking” carbon emissions might sound bad on first read, it actually refers to the point at which carbon emissions begin to decline rather than rise. 2030 might seem like a long time to wait for this to occur, but experts project that forcing the peak so early could actually reduce China’s emissions by 14%.

Carbon dioxide intensity refers to carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP, which basically means that it’s a more accurate measure of how emissions match up with economic activity. In addition to the 2030 goal, China set the goal of reducing carbon dioxide intensity by 40% to 45% below 2005 levels by 2020. Though we don’t have the data yet to confirm whether China has actually met this goal, Climate Action Tracker predicts that the country will indeed reach both the 2030 peak and the carbon dioxide intensity goals, despite failing to address the ever-present coal problem.

China itself is so confident in reaching these goals, in fact, that in December 2020, it announced a new, slightly more ambitious plan. The increases in this plan are so minor that they are hardly worth mentioning.

India, the third-highest emitter after the United States, has a less ambitious plan than China. The country hopes to reduce carbon dioxide intensity by 33% to 35% below 2005 levels by 2030. They also plan to increase the share of non-fossil fuel energy sources to 40% of electric capacity by 2030 and to absorb about 2.5 to 3 gigatonnes of equivalent carbon dioxide into carbon sinks like forests. Gigatonnes of equivalent carbon dioxide — expressed by the abbreviation GtCO2e — expresses the impact of disparate greenhouse gases by putting it in terms of the amount of carbon dioxide that would have the same impact.

Climate Action Tracker rates this plan at the 2 degrees Celsius level, meaning that if every other country were to submit comparable plans, the world might be able to just cling to that 2 degrees Celsius global temperature rise and not tip into apocalypse territory. Of course, not every country has committed to a comparable plan, rendering this one largely insufficient.

Perhaps I should refrain from criticizing the climate plans of other countries when my own has only just reentered the agreement. This, after all, is how we got into this pickle in the first place. No one can afford to throw stones when we all live in the same glass house. 

I’m excited to see what goals the Biden administration sets, and to compare them to the other plans that are out there. I hope they go big, ambitious, ostentatious — and that our legislative branch is able to pump out the policy to back it up.

Sarah writes primarily about trees, climate change and walking. You can reach her at [email protected].