The Paris Agreement: some comments and its main elements

By Leonardo Massai


The latest climate summit ended in the afternoon of 13 December 2015, almost two days behind schedule, with the approval of the Paris Agreement. The 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 21) to the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) successfully concluded the mandate that had been agreed upon at COP17 in Durban, South Africa in 2011. There, the Ad-hoc Working Group on Enhanced Action under the Durban Platform (ADP) was created and the year 2015 was set as last possible deadline to establish a new climate regime for the post 2020 period.

COP21 concluded years of intense negotiations. The Kyoto Protocol, adopted under the 1992 UNFCCC and setting out greenhouse gas emissions reduction obligations only for developed states, is nowadays left to a handful of developed countries and currently covering the period 2013-2020. According to COP13 in Bali, a new global climate agreement should have been adopted by 2009, in order to continue efforts to stop the climate from changing too much. The Copenhagen deadline was missed, however, notably because of the failure by COP15 to adopt the Copenhagen Accord. The new deadline agreed upon by COP17 in Durban mandated the ADP “to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties” at the latest by COP21.

The ADP held several inter sessional meetings in the four years between Durban and Paris, and concluded its work during the first week of COP21. It did so by launching a contact group to consider crosscutting issues and to unlock the work on the text of individual articles in the draft agreement and decision text.

By the closure of the ADP on 5 December 2015, its outcome was transmitted to the COP that established the Comité de Paris under the COP 21 Presidency to continue work on the draft agreement and decision text. The Comité de Paris convened for the last time in the evening of Saturday 12 December 2015 to forward the final text of the Paris Agreement and associated decision to COP 21 that successfully adopted both instruments at 7:29 pm of the same day. The Paris Agreement annexed to decision 1/CP.21 includes 16 preambular clauses and 29 operative clauses (annexed to FCCC/ CP/2015/L.9/Rev.1).

The main elements of the Paris Agreement are summarized here below:

  • Global objective (article 2): Parties agreed to strengthen ‘the global response to the threat of climate change’ by ‘holding the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C’, since this would significantly reduce risks and the impacts of climate change;
  • Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) (article 3): the concept and rationale behind the 185 Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) presented by all Parties before Paris is confirmed and remain the skeleton of the fight against climate change for the period after 2020. The NDCs also represent the strongest difference of the new regime compared to the Kyoto Protocol and the Copenhagen Accord, because of its voluntary nature and the complete lack of common parameters to verify their actual implementation;
  • Mitigation and ambition (article 4):
    • global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions to be reached as soon as possible
    • NDCs to be communicated every five years with the view to represent a progression beyond the Party’s current NDC and reflect the highest possible ambition
    • NDCs to be recorded in a public registry
    • Parties’ accounting for their NDCs to be determined by the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement (CMA)
  • REDD+ (article 5): Parties are encouraged to take action to implement and support REDD+ activities
  • Market (article 6):
    • Parties can use cooperative approaches that involve the use of internationally transferred mitigation outcomes to achieve their nationally determined contributions
    • A mechanism to contribute to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and support sustainable development is established
  • Adaptation (article 7):
    • A global goal is set on adaptation of enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change
    • ‘Each Party should, as appropriate, submit and update periodically an adaptation communication’
  • Loss and damage (article 8):
    • The ‘Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage may be enhanced and strengthened’, which means that negotiations will continue on the extent to which the Mechanism created in Warsaw will be operationalised
    • Countries also acknowledge the need to cooperate and enhance the understanding, action and support in different areas such as early warning systems, emergency preparedness and risk insurance.
  • Finance (article 9):
    • Developed countries will continue to support climate action to reduce emissions and build resilience to climate change impacts in developing countries;
    • Developed countries intend to continue their existing collective goal to mobilise USD 100 billion per year until 2025 when a new collective goal will be set.
  • Technology development and transfer (article 10):
    • Parties are to ‘strengthen cooperative action on technology development and transfer’
    • A Technology mechanism is established
  • Capacity building (article 11): Parties should cooperate to enhance activities in this domain through appropriate institutional arrangements
  • Transparency (article 13): ‘an enhanced transparency framework for action and support, with built-in flexibility which takes into account Parties’ different capacities and builds upon collective experience is established’
  • Global stocktake (article 14): in 2023, the first global stocktake assesses the collective progress towards achieving the purpose of this Agreement and its long-term goals
  • Compliance (article 15): a mechanism to facilitate implementation of and promote compliance with the provisions of this Agreement is established
  • Institutional framework (articles 16 – 19): CMA, secretariat, SBI and SBSTA
  • Final clauses (articles 20 -29): signature, entry into force, amendments, settlement of disputes, voting, withdrawal, languages

COP 21 also launched several work programs and activities to be conducted by the subsidiary bodies. Those activities will define many important details of the functioning of the new regime for the coming years, until 2020 when the Paris Agreement will have to come into force.

The Paris Agreement undoubtedly forms a milestone in the fight against climate change. It sets the framework for the first global common action against greenhouse gas emissions, by both developed and developing countries. The upcoming period will tell whether the structure and rules of the new treaty form a workable framework to tackle climate change and keep the global temperature rise well below 2C above pre-industrial levels. One of the first challenges in this respect will be to strengthen the commitments of the parties, as the combined effect of their current contributions would bring up the temperature far more than 2C.