Climate Primer

Recognizing that climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet and thus requires the widest possible cooperation by all countries, and their participation in an effective and appropriate international response, with a view to accelerating the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions . . . .” –Paris Agreement [1]

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In December of 2015, world leaders agreed in Paris, France to a new climate agreement. What is this new agreement and how does it fit within the existing legal framework?  


This is NOT the Beginning

“The ultimate objective of this Convention . . . is to achieve . . . stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.” [2] As progressive as this language is, it is not from the Paris Agreement. Believe it or not, it actually is from an agreement reached nearly a quarter of a century earlier: the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (“UNFCCC”). In addition to this strong language, the agreement also has near-universal participation with 197 Parties. [3] Thus, world leaders agreed decades ago to combat climate change. However, as a framework agreement, the UNFCCC is more an agreement to do “something” rather than an outline of what that “something” entails.   


What is a COP?

The negotiations that occurred in Paris were conducted at a “COP”. COP stands for “Conference of the Parties” and is essentially just a meeting for all parties to a treaty (and sometimes observers) to come together and discuss issues such as implementation, effectiveness, and new developments. COPs are common entities in multilateral treaties and, as such, Article 7 of the UNFCCC creates its own COP. Per the treaty text, the COP meets every year. It was at such a COP that the Kyoto Protocol was adopted and it was at such a COP that this new Paris Agreement was developed. Protocols and other agreements are simply more detailed plans to implement the general policy objectives of the overarching framework convention. So, the COP in Paris met to discuss the implementation of the UNFCCC and create a plan to more efficiently implement the main goal: combatting climate change.    


Build-Up to Paris

As discussed above, the Paris Agreement was developed at a UNFCCC COP. However, this was not a random or happenstance occurrence. In 2007, the COP met in Bali and decided to replace the Kyoto Protocol with some other agreement to be negotiated within two years. [4] Two years later in 2009 at the COP in Copenhagen, world leaders “took note” of an agreement, but no legally binding document was produced. [5] Then, in 2011 at the COP in Durban, the parties created an ad hoc working group “to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force . . .” for the period following 2020 (2020 is the end of the second period under the Kyoto Protocol). [6] In 2013 at the COP in Warsaw, parties were invited to prepare and submit “intended nationally determined contributions” (“INDCs”) which are basically self-determined goals for climate mitigation. [7] The process for INDC submission was formalized at the 2014 COP in Lima where preparations for the Paris negotiations also took place. [8] Finally, the 2015 COP took place in Paris where the “protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force . . .” called for at the 2011 COP in Durban was to be negotiated. Thus, 20 plus years have passed since the creation of the UNFCCC and over two years have built up to this specific agreement. [9]


The Paris Agreement

Given that background, there are at least two main takeaways: (1) the world has long agreed to address climate change in some way and (2) the agreement coming out of Paris was not spontaneous but rather a well-planned process. While it is good that the world is still dealing with climate change (especially given the lack of political will in Copenhagen) and while this plan provides specificity to an otherwise abstract commitment, it is important to fit this agreement into the proper legal context.

The agreement, itself, is a legal UN document that will be open for signature in April 2016 and will enter into force in January of 2020. It has a long-term goal of limiting global temperature increase to “well below 2 degrees C” with the intent to stay around 1.5 degrees C. [10] To meet this goal, each State will produce and submit an INDC (as created at the Warsaw and Lima COPs). [11] Every five years States will individually review and update their INDCs and the international community will collectively assess implementation at a Global Stocktake. [12] States will also be required to report on their emissions and progress with reports being subject to expert review. [13] Additionally, developed States committed to mobilizing $100 billion a year in climate finance to developing States starting in 2020. [14]

Positively, this agreement provides a specific framework to combat climate change that includes review and updating commitments. [15] It also includes stronger support for human rights than any other climate change agreement. [16] Negatively, however, the frameworks allows States to define their own contributions through the INDCs without any international oversight. [17] In fact, the currently submitted INDCs (which includes plans from the major emitting States) would likely increase global temperatures by around 3 degrees C, almost twice the 1.5 degree C goal. [18] Additionally, there are no specifications as to how the $100 billion will be collected, which States will donate what, which States will receive what and for what, or whether this financing is in addition to existing development funds or will be diverted from other programs. [19]

Overall, Devex says it best: “The agreement takes a big step towards creating the framework that will guide climate change cooperation. Now the challenge is to substantiate that framework with well-targeted projects, efficient financing, and community-led solutions.” [20]


[1] Adoption of the Paris Agreement, FCCC/CP/2015/L.9/Rev.1 (Dec. 12, 2015).
[2] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Art. 2, May 9, 1992, S. Treaty Doc No. 102-38, 1771 U.N.T.S. 107.
[3] Status of Ratification of the Convention, UNFCCC, (last visited Jan. 10, 2016).  
[4] Bali Climate Change Conference, UNFCCC, (last visited Jan. 10, 2016).
[5] Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, UNFCCC, (last visited Jan. 10, 2016).
[6] Durban Climate Change Conference, UNFCCC, (last visited Jan. 10, 2016).
[7] Warsaw Climate Change Conference, UNFCCC, (last visited Jan. 10, 2016).
[8] Lima Climate Change Conference, UNFCCC, (last visited Jan. 10, 2016).
[9] Paris Climate Change Conference, UNFCCC, (last visited Jan. 10, 2016).
[10]  David Waskow & Jennifer Morgan, The Paris Agreement: Turning Point for a Climate Solution, World Resources Institute (Dec. 12, 2015),
[11] Id.
[12] Id.
[13] Id.
[14] Id.
[15] Joseph Amon, An Important, but Imperfect, Agreement by an Unprecedented Coalition, U.S. News (Dec. 18, 2015),  
[16] Id.
[17] Oscar Reyes, Seven Wrinkles in the Paris Climate Deal, Common Dreams (Dec. 15, 2015),
[18] The Paris Agreement Marks an Unprecedented Political Recognition of the Risks of Climate Change, The Economist (Dec. 12, 2015),
[19] Reyes, supra note 17.
[20] Michael Igoe, 3 questions raised by the Paris climate agreement, Devex (Dec. 16, 2015),