opinion | Philip B. Duffy

Paris climate agreement is only a start

French Foreign Minister and president of the COP21 Laurent Fabius used a hammer to mark the adoption of the agreement.
French Foreign Minister and president of the COP21 Laurent Fabius used a hammer to mark the adoption of the agreement.

The unanimous agreement reached Saturday in Paris is a landmark accord that commits 196 countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, to document their progress toward meeting these commitments, and to make progressively more ambitious emissions-reduction commitments every five years.

The good news: Nothing like this has happened before. (Have 196 countries ever agreed to anything?) The bad news: The Paris commitments are largely nonbinding, and even if fully implemented are nowhere near sufficient to prevent very damaging climate change.

In other words, this agreement is only a start.


The core of the agreement is the emissions-reduction pledges that each country made in the run-up to the Paris meeting. In the jargon, these are known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDC. As the name suggests, each country independently set its own emissions-reduction goal; that flexibility was certainly essential to obtaining an agreement. In the past year or two, 186 countries (representing 96 percent of global emissions) submitted INDC to the UN. These pledges are nonbinding.

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Funding will be provided to help countries build the necessary capacity to measure their emissions, as well as to implement emissions-reduction measures and to adapt to climate changes that do occur.

The agreement mentions the desirability of keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a more stringent goal than the previously cited target of 2 degrees. Certainly 1.5 degrees is a much better goal; it’s becoming increasingly clear that 2 degrees would result in some very bad outcomes, like the eventual complete melting of the Greenland ice sheet and an associated rise in sea level of more than 20 feet. That said, the language about temperature targets is purely aspirational; what countries have committed to is their INDC. In any event, it may well be too late to meet the 1.5-degree goal, no matter how hard we try.

The accord also includes a provision to provide funding to avoid emissions from deforestation. This is a critical step, as deforestation and forest degradation contribute up to 30 percent of global CO2 emissions.

Getting 196 countries to agree unanimously to this (and to the deal’s other provisions) is an impressive accomplishment. Having represented the United States in earlier international climate change discussions, I’ve seen first-hand how difficult it can be to get agreement on seemingly innocuous points. Unfortunately, however, the emissions-reduction commitments agreed to in Paris are certainly not enough to limit global warming to a safe level. We knew that going into the conference. For one thing, the INDC apply only between now and 2030; what happens after that will be critical and, at this point, is completely unconstrained. That’s why the commitment to ratchet up the INDC every five years is so important.


It doesn’t matter that the emissions-reduction pledges are nonbinding, because there’s no way to enforce any binding agreement anyway. (The Kyoto protocol was supposedly binding, and countries like Canada that decided they didn’t like it simply withdrew.) Not only is there no enforcement mechanism, in many cases there is no good way to independently verify reported emissions. Without that, making the commitments “binding” would not have much substantive effect and would have made an agreement much more difficult to reach. The agreement does call for “technical expert review” of reported emissions data, but it’s not clear how effective these reviews will be.

Independent verification of emissions is clearly an area where scientific progress is needed. Thanks to pioneering work at the Woods Hole Research Center and elsewhere, emissions from forests can be estimated with reasonable accuracy from space, which is important because many developing countries emit primarily via deforestation. But fossil-fuel emissions are self-reported based largely upon closely held economic data. China’s upward revision of its recent reported emissions highlights the weakness of this approach.

Cynics may argue that the Paris agreement — being largely nonbinding and unverifiable — is meaningless. I don’t buy that. Stopping climate change will ultimately depend on the will of the parties involved and right now that’s stronger than ever. Real progress is finally occurring. The question is, will it be too little, too late?

Philip B. Duffy is president and executive director of the Woods Hole Research Center.