numbers, not adjectives — D. J. C. MacKay

How good is the Paris Agreement?

by Carl Edward Rasmussen, 2024-05-25, 5 minute read

The Paris Agreement (PA), is a United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreement, negotiated in Paris in December 2015 which came into force in November 2016. The agreement is long, one of its substantial statements, article 2.1(a), states that the parties agree to
Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change;
When it was signed, the PA was widely hailed as a "historic breakthrough". Instead of media-hype, let's examine the properties of the agreement, to figure out how good it really is.

The question is not whether the PA has had any benefit at all, which would of course be difficult to answer, because we can't know the hypothetical baseline where it hadn't come into force. Instead, the question is whether the agreement will likely live up to its goal to limit temperature rise by +1.5°C or +2.0°C.

When the PA came into force in November 2016, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was 404 ppm (parts per million) and the growth rate was 2.5 ppm/y (parts per million per year). Unless emissions change massively and immediately, we will reach +1.5°C warming at about 450 ppm CO2 in around 2035. Unfortunately, since the PA came into force over 7 years ago, the growth rate of CO2 has remained at 2.5 ppm/y, the highest rate seen in modern times. There is no indication that the growth rate is diminishing. And remember, the growth rate has to be zero, for the climate to stop warming. Therefore, it is clear that while the goals of the agreement may be appropriate, the mechanisms are completely inadequate.

What's wrong with the agreement?

Let's analyse why the mechanisms of PA have been completely inadequate so far. Is the PA essentially sound, just needing a little more time to deliver, or does it have fundamental structural deficiencies meaning that it is practically guaranteed to fail? This will be really important to understand, because it will determine whether we should push on with the agreement, or whether we may have to implement alternative mechanisms to achieve the PA's goals.

The nature of the climate challenge is that of sharing a global common resource. Because of the well understood greenhouse effect, limiting a rise in temperature requires limiting the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases. Since natural processes removing the airborne fraction of CO2 are very slow (on the order of hundreds of years), only a fixed amount of CO2 can be emitted, while staying within the temperature limit. This amount of CO2 is a finite global resource, which we must share.

Fortunately, a lot is known about when cooperation over shared resources work. The necessary ingredients for cooperation are: responsibility, commitments, transparency and a framework of trust. How does the PA fare on these?

In conclusion, it is clear that the PA is devoid of every one of the properties necessary for successful cooperation. This also shows that the reason why the PA results have been completely inadequate, is because the mechanisms of the agreement have fundamental structural deficiencies.

Constructive alternative

It is important that we acknowledge the fundamental deficiencies of the PA. Carrying on and hoping that the problem will go away by iteself is simply delusional. We need new effective mechanisms which deal with the problems outlined above. The Equitable Atmosphere Climate Cooperative provides such mechanisms.