High Marks for the Paris Climate Agreement

December 11, 2015

Late Saturday afternoon in Paris, the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, gaveled through a historic global climate agreement to the thunderous applause of diplomats representing almost 200 countries. A moment that so many people have worked so hard for, seemingly interminably, finally arrived.

The new agreement is far-reaching in its implications. The countries of the world have just stated their collective aim for global greenhouse gas emissions to peak as soon as possible, decline rapidly, and reach near-zero in the second half of the century. Two hundred governments have just sent a powerful signal that the future they want is low-carbon: energy without fossil fuels; agriculture without deforestation.

Going into the climate summit I’d laid out six key goals for success — three on climate and three on forests. Nearly all were achieved in Paris, as I describe below.


Outcome in Paris

On climate

Hold to the 2 °C target

√√ Achieved and exceeded

Ratchet up national commitments


Let countries trade carbon

√√ Achieved and exceeded

On forests

Include REDD+


Up results-based funding

Δ Inadequate

Recognize forests help people adapt too

X Not achieved

Goal: Hold to the 2 °C target

Outcome: Achieved and exceeded

I’d been worried that countries might try to remove the 2 °C (3.8 °F) guardrail delimiting dangerous climate change. In fact negotiations in Paris centered around whether to keep the 2 °C target or replace it with an even stronger 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) target, which could mean the difference between inundation and survival for people in low-lying island nations. In the end the agreement settled on holding global temperature rise “well below 2 °C and pursue efforts to limit temperature rise below 1.5 °C.” If 2 °C requires a moonshot effort, 1.5 °C is probably a Mars shot. But for now the same actions that start humanity on a path to 2 °C are also needed to get toward 1.5 °C.

Goal: Ratchet up national commitments over time

Outcome: Achieved

The climate actions that countries pledged earlier this year add up to a world that warms by 2.7 °C (4.9 °F) or more. The most nightmarish scenarios of climate change are probably now avoided, but the warming path we’re on is still dangerous. That's ok for now: half a loaf is better than none. But if 2 °C is to be achieved then countries will need to decarbonize even faster than they've already pledged to do. The hope now is that as countries get started on climate actions they turn out to be cheaper, easier, and quicker than conservatively feared. This has been the case for previous environmental efforts and technological innovations. The Paris agreement sets out a ratchet mechanism whereby countries review and strengthen their climate pledges every five years, beginning in 2020.

Goal: Let countries trade carbon

Outcome: Achieved and exceeded

One reason national climate pledges don't yet add up to a safe climate is because 200 countries have been trying to fight climate change in isolation. This is foolish; trading carbon across countries could cut the costs of climate action by half and thus spur countries to do far more of it. Fortunately the Paris Agreement recognizes the value of carbon trading. Not only does the agreement encourage countries that voluntarily trade carbon to do safely and responsibly, it also establishes a mechanism by which countries can trade carbon through the auspices of the United Nations.

Goal: Include “REDD+”

Outcome: Achieved

One of the largest, cheapest, and fastest ways to increase climate action beyond current levels is to halt and reverse tropical deforestation. Doing so could cut emissions by up to one-third, with a range of side benefits. The UNFCCC has spent ten years agreeing on a framework for how to do exactly that, called REDD+. Thus it's great that Paris agreement includes REDD+ as a core instrument for meeting global climate goals, by encouraging countries to implement and fund REDD+, including through results-based payments.

Goal: Up results-based funding for tropical forests

Outcome: Inadequate

The core concept of REDD+ is that rich countries pay tropical countries to keep their forests standing. But in the absence of an international carbon market, results-based finance from public budgets has been low, slow, and aidified. On the first day of the Paris conference Germany, Norway, and the UK announced around $1 billion a year through 2020 for tropical forests, maintaining funding at roughly the same level it has been for the last decade. On the final day, Norway announced it would continue its funding through 2030.

Meanwhile other developed countries were missing in action. Australia announced a new initiative on forests without specifying a dollar figure. The United States, France, and Japan pledged no new finance at all, despite signing a statement recognizing “the essential role forests play in avoiding dangerous climate change.” All this underscores the importance of markets in which rich nations can purchase emission reductions from protecting tropical forests out of self-interest, not charity. Along with the new market mechanism of the United Nations mentioned above, California and the International Civil Aviation Organization should look to the forests to help them meet ambitious climate goals.

Goal: Recognize that forests help people adapt to climate change too

Outcome: Not achieved

Admittedly it was a longshot, but I'd hoped to see the Paris agreement recognize that ecosystems aren't just delicate flowers to be protected from climate change and our responses to it; they are also the sturdy trees that will protect people from the landslides, floods, and storm waves that will intensify in a hotter future. That didn’t happen. Still, words in a global agreement aren't necessary for countries to follow the lead of Sri Lanka (which protected all its mangrove forests in order to safeguard its coastlines from cyclone waves) or China (which banned logging to mitigate flooding).

All in all the Paris climate agreement gets high marks. Of course words on paper aren’t enough on their own ensure a safer, cooler climate. Governments now have to live up to and exceed their promises. Rapidly decarbonizing economies while ensuring energy access to billions who still live without it will remain the challenge of the century.

But for now, congratulations to all who worked so hard for so many years to make this global climate agreement a reality. Today heads of state, climate negotiators, and people from all across society are all entitled to raise high and enjoy a delicious glass of French champagne.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.