Back to Top

5 Things to Know about the Paris Climate Agreement

You’ve likely heard a lot lately about the Paris climate talks that wrapped up a few weeks ago, and you’ve likely been left wondering what it’s all about. The follow up from Paris has seen lots of high talk from government officials and lots of complicated jargon, but little plain-English explanations of what the agreement actually says and what it means.

So in case you’ve been wondering what this whole Paris Agreement is all about, here are five things you need to know:

  1. It is monumentally historic

Never before has every nation of the world adopted an agreement on climate change. There have been attempts before at agreements like the one adopted in Paris this month. The best one the world has ever achieved was the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, and that was almost entirely an unmitigated failure. This time is different. Rather than prescriptive demands imposed upon nations, the Paris Agreement is based on nationally determined commitments that each country submitted based on their individual circumstances. This method built significant trust between the parties and created significantly more buy-in than ever before. While the agreement is not perfect and many wasted no time in deriding it as too little too late, the fact that every nation of the world has agreed to a common way forward on climate change is a huge deal. Full stop.

  1. It sets a clear long-term temperature goal for the world

In the lead up to the Paris climate talks, there was a lot of talk about making sure that by 2100, global temperatures do not rise more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (the year 1880 is used as the baseline year). This limit, it is widely believed by the scientific community, will protect us from some of the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. The Paris Agreement affirms this goal, but goes even further by committing to keep “global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.” This new goal is a big deal and took most experts by surprise. It is a testament to the advocacy of low-lying vulnerable nations and NGOs that pushed hard at the talks for a more ambitious long-term goal as a matter of survival for their people. It will require significant emission reductions and a rapid transition to a low-carbon economy, but the fact that it is in the operative text of the agreement is a major victory.

  1. It calls for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the century

In order to truly address the challenge of climate change, we have to address the root cause: global greenhouse gas emissions. It is likely that the complete elimination of global greenhouse gas emissions won’t be achieved for some time, so the  Paris Agreement struck a middle ground. It sets a goal to peak global greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to achieve “net zero emissions by the end of the century.” “Net zero emissions” simply means that by the end of the century, the world will have reduced its greenhouse gas emissions significantly, and what is still emitted will be sustainably offset by things like forests and oceans which absorb greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide--the most important greenhouse gas). The UN panel of expert scientists (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has said that the world must reach net zero emissions by 2070 to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change. While the agreement does not specifically reference this date, it is likely that it will become the target date as the world continues to evaluate and recalibrate its efforts in the decades to come.

  1. It mobilizes billions of dollars for poor and developing nations

A major sticking point for global progress on climate change in the past has been the gap between developed and developing nations. Essentially, developed nations have much more capacity and capital to transition their economies away from fossil fuels toward relatively more expensive renewable technologies. Developed nations have long argued that they do not have the luxury of abandoning cheap fossil fuel energy unless supported by wealthier nations. In response to this challenge, the Paris Agreement commits funds to be provided by developed nations to assist developing nations in the transition away from fossil fuels and in adapting to the effects of climate change that they are already experiencing. The agreement stipulates that developed nations will provide $100 bn U.S. dollars by the year 2020 for this purpose. After 2020, they will provide $100 bn every year moving forward. There are several funds that have been created to process and distribute these funds, including the Green Climate Fund, which the United States and Canada have committed $3 billion and $2.65 billion respectively.

  1. It is the starting point, not the finish line

There is no doubt that the Paris Agreement is a major milestone that should be celebrated, but it would be a mistake to think that its adoption now means that our work is finished. The agreement is a framework; a mutual agreement on how the world will move forward in the coming decades to address the challenge of climate change. Governments, lawmakers, and advocates (that’s you!) will now need to do the hard work of following up the important words of the Paris Agreement with even more important action.

The Paris Agreement is a big deal, and the CRC knows it. That’s why we sent a delegation to be present at the negotiations in order to provide a public witness and to report back on the proceedings. That’s why almost 200 CRC members from 35 congregations across the U.S. and Canada signed on to be plugged into the work of the delegation--to pray for them, to receive daily newsletters from them and to attend a live teleconference hosted by them--and to turn their learning into action through over a dozen written op-eds and dozens of legislative meetings to come with their decision makers. The work of turning the words of the Paris Agreement into action is already underway in the CRC.

Will you join us? We've put together a quick action alert to help you connect with your Member of Congress or Member of Parliament to affirm our countries' commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement and encourage them to continue taking concrete steps for its implementation. 

In order to steward ministry shares well, commenting isn’t available on Do Justice itself because we engage with comments and dialogue in other spaces. To comment on this post, please visit the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue’s Facebook page (for Canada-specific articles) or the Office of Social Justice’s Facebook page. Alternatively, please email us. We want to hear from you!

Read more about our comment policy.