How the Paris Agreement Really Works


Coal power plant with energy solar panels

Since last week’s announcement that Trump would be leaving the Paris Agreement, the internet and social media have exploded both with fierce denunciations and stalwart defenses of his decision.  Climate Caretakers has taken a strong position against leaving Paris—an argument which has precipitated diverse reactions.

Two things in particular have stood out to me from the comments of those criticizing our position.  First, the foundations of support for Trump’s decision rely mostly on inaccurate information about how the Paris Agreement works.  Second, the values behind such critiques reflect legitimate concerns that should be looked at.  Let’s look at the details of the agreement more closely to better understand what we’re talking about.

The Paris Agreement is an agreement between 195 nations to individually and collectively reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid the worst repercussions of climate change, which would greatly and permanently harm millions of people, countless ecosystems, and the global economy.  Unlike the flawed Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement incorporates global participation, with every country participating in emission reductions.  The agreement intentionally has no enforcement mechanism and relies on voluntary commitments by individual nations.

The only mandatory component of the Paris Agreement is for each party to report annually on their progress toward reaching their greenhouse gas reduction target.  Countries don’t even need to realize their targets to remain in the agreement—just report on their progress.

A corollary to the Paris Agreement is the more controversial Green Climate Fund (GCF).  This fund provides adaptation assistance for developing countries struggling to adapt to the climatic changes already happening.  The GCF is funded through voluntary contributions by wealthy countries, with nearly all industrialized nations participating.  The funds go to support projects like irrigation, agricultural technology, drought-resistant crops, infrastructure to protect from sea level rise, etc.  All funds go to impoverished countries and projects are monitored to ensure against waste and corruption.


So, what are some of the common misconceptions about the Paris Agreement?

It’s an income redistribution scheme

One of the primary arguments used against the agreement is that it’s really just a way to redistribute income.  In actuality, the Paris Agreement has no mandatory financial requirements for signatory nations.  All contributions are voluntary and are handled through the GCF (not the Paris Agreement).  It is permissible for any nation to stop their GCF contributions and yet still remain in the agreement.  Moreover, GCF contributions go toward projects aimed at alleviating extreme poverty and hunger, which have been exacerbated by climate change.  In addition, it’s not countries like China who are benefitting from the GCF, but truly impoverished countries like Bangladesh and Malawi, who have done nothing to contribute to the problem, but suffer some of the most severe impacts.

It disadvantages the United States vis-à-vis China

This is simply not true.  While China’s greenhouse gas reduction target is less ambitious than ours, it’s important to remember a couple things.  First, China has four times as many people.  On a per capita basis, the United States still emits more than twice as much greenhouse gases as China.  Second, China is still a developing economy.  They’re much better off than many countries, but their economy still needs to grow in order to bring hundreds of millions out of poverty.

Third, China is making enormous investments in renewable energy—pledging $360 billion over the next 4 years.  They already have more solar and wind energy than the United States.  Additionally, while much has been made of China’s polluting power plants, they’re turning around quickly.  Earlier this year the country closed down 103 planned coal plants, including many that were already under construction.  China is firmly committed to taking action on climate change.  If we abandon our commitments, we will soon take China’s place as the polluting pariah of the world.

It will cost American jobs

No statement could be farther from the truth.  The solar industry, for example, employs more people than the coal, oil, and natural gas industries combined.  In scaling back our efforts to address climate change we are only hindering our own job growth by relying on dirty, outdated energy technology that will soon become obsolete.  Experts note that the long-term cost of failing to act on climate change far exceeds any short-term costs associated with the energy transition to renewables.  In fact, financial superpower Citigroup puts the global cost of delayed action on climate at $44 trillion.

Every other country in the world is acting to address climate change, including our closest allies and our greatest competitors.  Failing to act on climate and abandoning the Paris Agreement puts us at a competitive and a diplomatic disadvantage with these countries by giving preference to losing industries at a time when the world is shifting away from such technologies.

It involves a loss of American sovereignty

Actually, every aspect of the agreement is voluntary.  Voluntary reduction targets and timelines, voluntary contributions to the GCF, etc.  The agreement was intentionally made unenforceable in order to address this concern.

It won’t solve climate change

This critique is accurate–in a sense.  The greenhouse gas reductions pledged by the 195 signatory nations are probably enough to limit global warming to around 2.7 degrees Celsius—above the red line of 2.0 degree Celsius which most experts have cautioned against exceeding. Nevertheless, because Paris is the first truly global agreement on emissions reductions, it represents a critical first step, as well as a long-term blueprint, for solving the problem.  For this reason, the agreement is a landmark achievement.  Paris alone isn’t enough, but without Paris there is no path to success.

We can renegotiate a better deal for the United States

First of all, because everything in the agreement is voluntary, there’s nothing about the current agreement that disadvantages the United States.  Second, literally every other nation on earth except two (Syria and Nicaragua) are party to this agreement–and they like it.  Finally, a large number of countries—including industrialized nations in Europe and a good portion of the developing world—lobbied for stronger targets and a more forceful agreement in Paris.   The final Paris Agreement was dumbed down primarily because of expected opposition from the United States.

In other words, many nations who are party to this agreement have already made compromises in order to accommodate us.  Remember, climate change is only a controversial issue in the United States–everywhere else in the world it’s understood to be a disturbing reality that must be urgently dealt with.  They’re not going to renegotiate a new deal unless it’s stronger.


The Paris Agreement represents a critical step in tackling the most challenging and threatening problem that humanity has ever faced.  It’s not the perfect solution, but it’s a good one.  And our planet needs it.







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