The Paris Agreement: We can’t agree to disagree anymore

March, 2018

The world is getting warmer, and it’s doing so at an alarming rate. The nations of the world have come together before, with initiatives like the Kyoto Protocol, to try to curb climate change, but haven’t had much success. In 2015, another attempt was initiated by the United Nations. In itself, the Paris Agreement is promising, but some worry that it is already falling apart as powerful countries like the United States threaten to withdraw from the initiative.

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What IS the Paris Agreement?

At its core, the Paris Agreement is a treaty put forth by the United Nations with the goal of combatting climate change. The countries that have signed on to the agreement have pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by whatever extent they are able. The ultimate goal of the agreement is to keep the average global temperature from rising more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

So far, 195 countries have signed the agreement, including the world’s top emissions offenders: China, the United States and the European Union. The agreement itself is non-binding, and there is no penalty for pulling out or failing to meet emissions targets. Rather than acting as a law, the purpose of the agreement is to create an international culture of accountability and to encourage competition in cutting down emissions.

The importance of 2°C

Temperatures around the world are known to fluctuate wildly with the changing of the seasons, and things like mini ice ages and heat waves have been known to alter temperatures for years at a time. So why is two degrees such a big deal?

For all of pre-industrial human history, and even dating back into the geological record, temperature fluctuations have always corrected themselves over time. But since we started burning fossil fuels in the 1800s, global temperature averages have been rising faster and higher than ever before, and they show no sign of slowing down—much less reversing. Climatologists see 2°C as a point-of-no-return. After that point, evidence shows that the world’s glaciers and ice caps will disappear, the ocean levels will rise and extreme weather will become the norm. Glacial and polar ice can’t be put back once it is melted, at least not by current technologies. Once it’s gone, it’s really gone.

The American Controversy

Only a few months after taking office in 2017, American president Donald Trump announced that he did not plan to abide by the Paris Agreement, and that he would formally withdraw the United States at the earliest date that the agreement allows, November 2020.

Trump has been very public about his denial of human-caused climate change, and sees the agreement as being contrary to his goal of bringing America back to its industrial golden age. He has even implied that the agreement, and belief in climate change in general, is a plot to weaken America’s economy. This mindset poses a large problem for the Paris Agreement and for the world at large. America is the second-largest polluter in the world, accounting for roughly 14% of global emissions. By comparison, Canada accounts for only 1%.

When it comes to fighting climate change, every little bit helps, but without American involvement, participation in the agreement becomes largely a symbolic gesture for most of the signatory nations. The goals of the agreement can only be met if all the world’s main pollution emitters agree to participate.

Did You Know?

Current projections show that sea levels could rise 65-80 metres by the end of the century. This would place coastal cities like Vancouver, Halifax and even low-lying inland cities like Montreal, completely underwater.

Fun Fact

Canada signed onto the Paris Agreement in 2015, committing to reduce national greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by the year 2030. While the Canadian Government remains committed to this promise, it is not yet clear how it will be achieved.