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

How good is the Paris Agreement?

by Carl Edward Rasmussen, 2023-08-10

The Paris Agreement, is a United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreement, negotiated in Paris in December 2015 which came into force in 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 Paris Agreement was widely hailed as a "historic breakthrough". But I personally think that the agreement is bad. Specifically, I think it is worse than nothing, as in that it actively makes the problem of climate change worse. Let me explain why.

Properties of the Paris Agreement

Below I discuss some of the key properties of the agreement: Tackling climate change is fundamentally about cooperation. We all share the same atmosphere, CO2 emissions from anywhere, quickly spread globally. Cooperation requires reciprocal and binding agreements. A great example of cooperation in practice is income-tax. I pay my tax, not because I necessarily agree with every detail of the system, but because I'm part of a community who cooperate to achieve communal benefits. I agree because others agree. I will if you will. But I think it's unfair if people cheat or free-load. Unfortunately the Paris Agreement completely ignores these well known, understood, documented and necessary mechanisms of cooperation. Of course, implementation of income tax requires enforcement. And the international community doesn't have a body with global jurisdiction. But that doesn't mean we can't make binding, reciprocal agreements. How much tax would you pay, if it was voluntary? Hoping that a voluntary NDC based tax system would work is delusional. The problem with the Paris Agreement is the fundamental absense of a framework which includes the mechanisms necessary for cooperation.


For all the reasons above, I think the Paris Agreement is a bad agreement. You might hope that even if it proves not to be particularly effective, then at least it won't do any harm. But I think it is much worse than that. Because it is seen internationally as "the only game in town", this obstructs efforts to engage more effectively. The net result is that we will continue to wait and hope in vain. And waiting is precisely what we can't afford. I'm all for the "keep 1.5°C alive" slogan, but let's be realistic, it's not going to happen as a consequence of the Paris Agreement. The sooner we realise this, the sooner we can start working on effective solutions.

What would a better agreement look like?