A major United Nations conference on climate change held in Paris in December 2015 produced a widely adopted, landmark international agreement to reduce carbon emissions and tackle additional problems associated with both ongoing and anticipated climate change resulting from anthropogenic (human-induced) global warming. Informally referred to as the United Nations Climate Change Conference, the meeting was also the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), ratified in 1992; it was also the 11th Conference of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP 11).
The Paris Climate Agreement, negotiated to limit carbon emissions to levels that would limit or prevent the most catastrophic perils predicted by climate change data and models, entered into force in November 2016. All UNFCC countries except Syria and Nicaragua initially signed the agreement, but by late 2017, both of these countries had become parties to the accord.
After campaigning on an "America First" platform, U.S. President Donald Trump (1946–) announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement on 2 June 2017, saying the accord disadvantaged U.S. businesses and workers. With Syria's entrance in November 2017, the U.S. became the sole UN member nation not participating in the accord. Trump did not rule out rejoining the Agreement after formulating a more favorable position for the U.S., but France, Italy, and the UK quickly responded that the Paris Agreement was not negotiable. China, India, and the European Union renewed their commitment to the Agreement, and several U.S. states pledged to independently generate legislation with greenhouse-gas emissions targets in line with the Paris accord.
Scientific models from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimate that at current levels of emissions, average global temperatures could increase 4°C to 5°C (7.2°F to 9°F) by 2100. Conference participants initially aimed to negotiate an agreement to sufficiently reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit the anticipated global temperature increase before the end of the century to less than 2°C (3.6°F). Although hailed as a diplomatic success in term of reaching consensus about the need for action to combat climate change, critics of the Paris agreement, both those who thought the agreement was weak and those who worried it was too strong and economically damaging, joined with scientists openly skeptical that the agreement will hold temperature increases to less than 2°C (3.6°F)
The agreement reached in Paris was the culmination of decades of diplomatic efforts. Critics derided the agreement as weak because countries can set their own goals and report on their own progress. Moreover, there is no timeline toward compliance and no penalties for lack of compliance. There is only the target of reaching zero level emissions (where emissions balance natural uptake) by the end of the century.
Since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the world has consistently failed to meet global emission goals. The deal reached in Paris was the first broad international agreement reached since the Kyoto Protocols to restrict and eventually lower global-warming greenhouse gas emissions.
The agreement was based on Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) produced independently by 146 national climate panels prior to the conference. While the INDCs would reduce emissions by about 9% by 2030, most widely accepted scientific models predict they would combine to only limit emissions sufficiently to keep the anticipated rise in average global temperatures to 2.7°C (4.9° F) before 2100. Conference leaders remained hopeful that future agreements will further reduce emissions to keep temperature increases below levels that will avoid the most catastrophic forecast perils of unmitigated climate change, including sea level rise that could displace millions of people and changes in the patterns and severity of storms, rain, floods, and droughts that will exacerbate existing water and food shortages that, in turn, can ultimately result in war and/or civil unrest.
Then United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon called the Paris conference a "truly a historic moment," and hailed what he termed the first "truly universal agreement on climate change, one of the most crucial problems on earth."
Significant in the agreement was a consensus and commitment of action from China and the United States, the world's two largest economies and largest emitters of greenhouse gases. China essentially shed its shield of being a developing country to join industrialized nations in pledging money to help poor nations cope with climate change. The money is intended to remediate existing damage and mitigation future damage resulting from climate change. While poorer countries pushed for a legally binding commitment of $100 billion a year to help them cope with climate change, that amount was set only as a goal, and was not included in the portion of the agreement intended to become legally binding.
Adopted by acclamation of 196 countries, the Paris accord became binding and entered into force on 4 November 2016, after UN countries representing 55 percent of current greenhouse emissions ratified it. As of November 2017, 169 parties to the convention out of 197 have ratified the Paris Agreement.
The pact in Paris commits countries to meet every five years, starting in 2020, to issue reports on their progress and negotiate future agreements. The Paris pact also requires countries to meet every five years starting in 2023 to issue technical reports on progress under a universal accounting system.
U.S. President Barack Obama (1961–) said that the goal of the Paris conference was "an enduring framework for human progress, not a stopgap solution." Critics had demanded more urgent action because many greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, continue to warm the atmosphere for centuries after they are released into the atmosphere. Prior to the conference, President Obama used his executive powers to enact the nation's first climate change policy in the form of strict new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations designed to reduce greenhouse gas pollution from U.S. coal-fueled power plants.
There was significant international lobbying for an agreement in Paris by an array of NGO groups. In anticipation of the conference, Pope Francis published an encyclical on the environment and poverty calling for global action against climate change as an expression of human values. There were also protests both in Paris and across the world. Anti-capitalist extremist groups also clashed with French police.
The conference also provided a platform for governments and NGO groups, including those run by some of the world's wealthiest people, to increase investments in clean energy research and development of wind, solar, and nuclear power. There was also a grudging recognition that the fossil fuel economy will only gradually yield to new technological advances in clean energy. Energy technologies in place today can only gradually be replaced over the next century and industrializing countries will, without new technological advances, continue to depend on fossil fuels to power economic development.
In 2017, United Nations Environmental Programme director Erik Solheim stated that the world is in a transitional phase from fossil fuel dependence to reliance on renewable energy sources, a key strategy to meet the Paris accord objectives. Solheim called for China, as the world's largest polluter, to play a key role in the transition. Solheim labeled the U.S. withdrawal from the accord "clearly a mistake," but also noted that the withdrawal energized the U.S. environmental community, including industry giants like Apple, Microsoft, and Google, to continue to find and implement solutions that would keep the U.S. on pace with the Paris accord objectives.
Prior efforts to reach a strong and legally binding international accord were dashed during a factious 2009 climate change summit meeting in Copenhagen. Proponents of the Paris accords publicly acknowledge that its legal structure (binding in some regards and non-binding in others) was designed to thwart the oversight power of the U.S. Senate with regard to formal treaties and binding agreements. In 2015, President Obama formally entered into the Paris Climate Agreement as an Executive Agreement rather than as treaty requiring Senate approval. For this reason, Senate approval was not needed to subsequently leave the agreement.
There was widespread and strong international condemnation of President Trump's decision in June 2017 to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate agreement from leaders of other countries, scientists, and major business leaders. Prior to the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, Chinese President Xi Jinping (1953–) urged President Trump not to withdraw from the Agreement, and David Rank, acting U.S. Ambassador to China, resigned rather than deliver the official statement to China that the U.S. had withdrawn from the climate accord.
A Reuters poll conducted shortly after the announced withdrawal showed that 68 percent of Americans wanted the United States to lead the world in fighting climate change, half of participants thought participation in the Paris Agreement was necessary to achieve this, but only four percent identified the issue as more important than the U.S. economy or security.