What is the Paris Climate Agreement?

The brief definition: The Paris Climate Agreement is an international treaty that tackles the rising dangers of climate change. Since 2015, 197 nations have signed the agreement. 

Before we proceed, let’s clear up one thing: the Agreement is not specific to Paris, it’s called the Paris Climate Agreement because that’s where the Agreement was first negotiated (if you’re confused why we have to make this clear, it’s because of this Tweet).

Some background

Prior to Paris, there had been previous efforts to address the looming consequences of climate change through treaties. There was the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer signed in 1987, and the Kyoto Protocol signed in 1997, which sought to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the Paris Agreement is considered a game-changer, let’s take a look at why. 


The Agreement was drafted in the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21). These conferences are held yearly where each of the attending parties assesses the progress of dealing with climate change. 

This conference was an important one as the Paris Agreement (that was drafted at the 2015 conference) was the first universal, legally binding global climate change agreement. 

It was signed and came into effect in 2016. 

The aims and how it works

The driving aim of the Agreement is to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, (preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius), compared to pre-industrial levels (before the industrial revolution).

This is implemented through both economic and social change based on the best available science. Nations have to individually submit their plans (known as nationally determined contributions). These contributions are mandatory for all signatories of the Agreement.   

There are also long-term strategies known as long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies (LT-LEDS). These are not mandatory but are encouraged to provide a vision and direction for future development.

The Agreement also allows countries to support each other. Developed countries are encouraged to take a lead on the action, and provide assistance with finance, technology, and capacity building. 

Didn’t Trump leave the agreement? 

Yes, making the U.S. the first nation to withdraw from the Agreement. Trump announced the withdrawal in 2017, but due to complex rules of the Agreement, there was a delay that resulted in the U.S. formally leaving in 2020. As you can imagine, this was a big deal. Given that the U.S. is the biggest economy in the world, the move raised concerns around trust issues on the Agreement. However, current President Joe Biden reversed this decision and returned to the Paris Agreement in 2021. 

What has the Paris Agreement achieved? Are there criticisms? 

Overall, countries have had no choice but to start at least thinking about their plans on how they plan to contribute to the goals and aims of the Paris Climate Agreement. 

The UK has released a new 2030 plan that was praised for being ambitious (although critics did mention that there were hurdles with this particular plan). The EU has been praised for its efforts (even before the Agreement) by reducing warming gases 23.2% from their 1990 level by 2018. China has also announced plans to reach carbon neutrality by 2060.

Australia on the other hand is lagging behind in its promises according to scientists. The Federal Government set a target for 2030 of making a 26-28% reduction in its emissions compared with 2005 levels. Dr Bill Hare, who’s part of the Climate Action Tracker group of scientists, rated Australia’s progress as ‘insufficient’, referring to Australian emissions projecting to be only 16% lower than 2005 levels in 2030.

Later this year, we’ll see a United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. In the lead-up, we’re expecting to see international pressure on Australia (particularly from the UK and U.S.) to set firmer and more ambitious climate targets, that go beyond the requirements of the Paris Agreement.

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