Mandate From Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement was negotiated in 2015 under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and came into effect about a year later, once enough countries had ratified it.  It was negotiated by the national governments of countries (except the European Union negotiated on behalf of European countries); countries are known as ‘Parties’ to the Paris Agreement.

The Paris Agreement marks a paradigm shift in international climate policy.  All countries agreed to contribute to the goal of keeping “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”.

Countries also committed to “Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production”. This is important because in order to reach the goal of 1.5 degrees, and to adapt to climate change already happening, all countries have to contribute.

Article 3.1 of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, of which the Paris Agreement is a part, enshrines the principle of ‘Common but Differentiated Responsibility’ (CBDR).  This principle acknowledges that some countries have contributed much more than others to the climate crisis.  Because the wealthier countries of the global North contributed disproportionately to the problem, they have a historical responsibility to do more to address the problem – including by providing financial support to developing countries.  That financial support should be in the form of grants, or concessional loans – for addressing mitigation, adaptation, and/or capacity building needs.

Nationally Determined Contributions

Each country that signed the Paris Agreement is obligated to contribute a ‘Nationally Determined Contribution’ (NDC).  The NDC is each country’s plan to address climate change, which they develop and update themselves. This website helps civil society understand the approaches for mitigation and adaptation that are already in the NDCs, and help to develop their own approaches.  The UNFCCC introduces the Paris Agreement here.

The Paris Agreement makes clear that implementation of the commitments by Parties must “reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances”. It recognizes that countries don’t have the same responsibility for causing climate change, or equal capacity to lower emissions (mitigation) or adapt to climate change.  And some countries are more vulnerable than others to the impacts of climate change. 

Therefore, the Paris Agreement states that developed or industrialized countries, holding more historical responsibility for climate change, not only have to make deep reductions in their own emissions, but should also provide support to developing countries to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change.  

This recognition is important both practically and morally. Morally because the responsibility to address climate change and its consequences should lie with the ones who have caused it and benefitted the most from the emissions of greenhouse gases. Practically because in order to keep global warming at 1.5 degrees, the world will have to reach real zero emissions by 2050, while also protecting and enhancing natural carbon sinks such as forests, peat lands and mangroves.   Developing countries will also need to stabilize or cut their emissions – moving away from the fossil-fuel-dependent development pathways of the 20th century.

The Decision (Decision 1/CP.21) suggests that country NDCs include the following:

  • Planning processes to be used.
  • Time frames and implementation periods for climate action.
  • A reference point, like a base year, to measure progress.
  • Assumptions/Methodologies used to count greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Assumptions/Methodologies used to measure forests and land use change.

The NDC should also state how and why it is ‘ambitious’ and how it advances the goals of the climate convention.  Finally, it is expected that countries with resources will report on emissions from all sectors of the economy.  Less-developed countries do not have to report all sectors right now, but are expected to move toward economy-wide reporting in this decade.

Land Use in the Paris Agreement

Land use in the Paris Agreement is particularly important for developing countries.  A recent study from Natural Climate Solutionsfound that the mitigation potential from ending deforestation and restoring forests and other ecosystems is more than half of total current national emissions in 50% of all tropical countries.  25% of the countries surveyed have a mitigation potential from Natural Climate Solutions that is larger than the country’s total current emissions in all sectors. Meanwhile, small island developing states are particularly vulnerable to climate change.

The land-sector mitigation potential has to be realized to meet the Paris Agreement goals.  Appropriate adaptation needs must also be addressed by developing countries – see Civil Society Review. CLARA has developed a very comprehensive report on how this should be done.  See the Missing Pathways Report.

Net Zero

An increasing number of NDCs use ‘net zero’ targets.  The term ‘net zero’ doesn’t appear in the Paris Agreement, but is derived from language in Article 4 of the agreement that calls for countries to ‘achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity’.

Anthropogenic means ‘human-caused’. Removals refers to any and all efforts to remove carbon from the atmosphere.  An earlier draft of the Paris Agreement called for countries to completely de-carbonize their fossil fuel sectors by mid-century (2050).  That would have meant a real ‘zero-ing out’ of emissions.

But that de-carbonization language was opposed by countries with strong fossil-fuel interests, backed by intense fossil-fuel companies’ lobbying.  Instead, Article 4 calls for a ‘balance between emissions and removals’. And that balancing act is now called achieving ‘net zero’.

CLARA members are concerned about ‘net zero’.  The most important task for climate mitigation is driving fossil emissions toward zero.  Emissions cannot continue at anything close to the current level.   Countries may be tempted not to take drastic emission cuts by relying on future ‘net zero’, with the idea that they will find ways to sequester enough carbon.

Geoengineering approaches to carbon removal and sequestration are risk and unproven.  Further, the idea that continued fossil fuel use can be ‘excused’ by increasing carbon sequestration on land will create more competition for land, with negative impacts on food security.  Article 4 of the Paris Agreement says that this balance must be achieved ‘on the basis of equity’, but too many land-based carbon mitigation projects are ‘land grabs’ that marginalize indigenous peoples and local communities.

It’s important that if your country’s NDC uses a ‘net zero’ approach to ask about what is being proposed in terms of ‘removals’ – where they will take place, and who will be impacted.

UNFCCC Guidance to Governments

The Paris Agreement includes a long-term global goal for minimizing climate change, suggests what countries should do to advance progress toward that goal, and specifies particular elements that countries should include in their NDCs.

Articles 3 and 4 of the Paris Agreement call for NDCs to get more ambitious over time – ‘reflect[ing] its highest possible ambition…in the light of different national circumstances.’  Article 4 calls on developed countries to undertake ‘economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets – that is, across all sectors – while developing countries ‘should continue enhancing their mitigation efforts’ with the goal of moving toward economy-wide targets as soon as possible.  Article 4.6 allows more time and flexibility for least developed countries and small island developing states.

Article 3 also suggests – but does not require – that NDCs should include elements on mitigation, adaptation, financial support, technology transfer, capacity building, and transparency regarding the methods used and results achieved.  This is important to bear in mind, since many NDCs to date have focused only on mitigation.  Article 7 reminds Parties about the importance of communications on adaptation, as well.

Article 4 makes clear that all Parties should provide information ‘necessary for clarity, transparency, and understanding’ to make it possible to evaluate the ambition of the NDC. Article 13.7 calls on Parties to provide information ‘necessary to track progress made in implementing and achieving nationally determined contributions.’

Article 6 of the Paris Agreement talks about ‘voluntary cooperation’ in the implementation of NDCs, but two market mechanisms are discussed.  Parties haven’t yet agreed to the provisions in Article 6.  For more detail see the Climate Finance  page.

More detail about implementation of the NDC is included in a ‘Decision’ that accompanies the Paris Agreement (called Decision 1/CP.21).  Parts of the Decision are very useful for groups trying to evaluate the content and ‘ambition’ of an NDC.  Parties communicating their NDCs should include:

  • Use of a reference point (a ‘base year’ from which emission reductions are measured);
  • Timeframes for implementation of the NDC;
  • Details about the planning processes used;
  • Details about the scope and coverage of the NDC (for example, is the land-sector included? What economic sectors are not included in the NDC, and why?);
  • Information about the methodologies used in estimating emission reductions, and methodologies used to estimate ‘removals’ of atmospheric carbon through sequestration;
  • An explanation of why and how the NDC is ambitious and appropriate, given the Party’s national circumstances; and
  • How the NDC contributes to reaching Paris Agreement goals.

For a Glossary of technical terms used by the UNFCCC, national negotiators, and climate scientists, look here.  

Library Resources

Paris Agreement

  • Paris Agreement Text

UNFCCC Guidance

  • Implementing Decision
  • Civil Society Review of Commitments

Land Use in the Paris Agreement

  • CLARA Report ‘Missing Pathways’