The Paris Agreement is the first universal and legally binding action plan to implement a “global response to the threat of climate change.” It was adopted in December 2015 by 160 nations at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP 21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It came into effect on November 4, 2016, after ratification by “ at least 55 Parties … accounting in total for at least an estimated (55 percent) of the total global greenhouse gas emissions.”

The key goals are to keep the increase in global average temperature to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrials levels, the threshold deemed unacceptably risky, and ultimately limit the increase to 1.5 degrees in order to “significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”  

The Paris Agreement is a 25-page document that goes beyond wishful thinking and sets out detailed measures to reach those global goals. Each nation thus voluntarily undertakes to set national goals and report progress transparently. All should enhance their level of ambition at least every five years. Adaptation tools require taking into account local and regional dimensions, coordinated sharing of knowledge and practices, and transfer of technologies. Developed countries undertake to assist developing countries technically and also financially. In that respect, 38 developed countries published a roadmap in October 2016 scaling-up the level of their collective support to developing countries to $100 billion a year by 2020. The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damages associated with Climate Change Impacts (2013) will also be enhanced via cooperation and support in areas such as early warning systems, emergency preparedness, slow onset events, and insurance solutions.

Almost 25 years after the creation of the scientific Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (1988) and the UNFCCC (1992), the reality of climate change and its anthropic origins cannot seriously be questioned, and the unanimous adoption of the Paris Agreement says a lot about the urgency to effectively deal with their consequences before they become irremediable.  

Diplomacy was key in securing that achievement, especially after the resounding failure of the Copenhagen Summit (2009). The involvement of the “civil society” was also expressly acknowledged by the COP as an informal global coalition of NGOs, businesses, academics, and cities that joined forces to provide constructive input. Last but not least, the endorsement of the two main contributors, China and the United States under the Obama administration, was decisive.

In that context, President Trump’s announcement in June 2017 to withdraw from the Paris Agreement was feared to undermine years of international effort overnight. Formally, a party may notify its withdrawal only after three years from the date on which the agreement entered into force, the withdrawal taking effect a year later, i.e., at the earliest on November 4, 2020, (which would be the day after the next presidential election). At the G20 Summit held in Hamburg in July 2017, President Trump nevertheless announced that the United States would “immediately cease the implementation of its current nationally-determined contribution.” 

While expressly taking note of such decision in their communiqué, all other G20 members, including China, pronounced the Paris Agreement “irreversible.” France and the European Union have since restated their determination to be at the forefront of international efforts to implement the Paris Agreement. Many other countries and “civil society” actors all over the world, including in the United States, appear also to be galvanized by President Trump’s decision: while curbing the effects of global warming, the use of fossil fuels, and the multiplication of climate refugees is an emergency, developing renewable and smart energies offers thrilling innovation and business opportunities.