Earth to Labor: Dispatches from the Climate BattlegroundFeatured

Five Years On, the Paris Climate Agreement Needs an Overhaul

Photo credit: John Englart (Takver), Flickr

It’s been five years since the Paris Climate Agreement was signed.[1] Negotiated in late 2015, the agreement acknowledged the need for decisive action in order to limit average global warming to “well below 2 degrees Celsius” (compared to pre-industrial levels) and to try to limit warming to just 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Nearly all countries—184 in total, including the United States—ratified the agreement, and each committed to submit a target (known as a “Nationally Determined Contribution”, or NDC) that would, in the case of the rich countries, either reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) or, in the case of developing countries, slow their levels of increase.[2] Countries were given the freedom to design and develop their own ways of achieving their respective NDCs.

The agreement was hailed as an unprecedented diplomatic achievement. In the words of the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, Paris marked “a big step forward for all of humanity.”[3] U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the agreement as a “monumental triumph for people and our planet.”[4] And in early 2016, Achim Steiner, then head of the U.N.’s Environment Program (UNEP), declared that Paris signified “the triumph of science over politics.”[5]

Trump’s Tiny, Tiny Catastrophe

Science over politics…so what could possibly go wrong?  Well, in June 2017 President Trump’s White House announced it would begin the process of pulling the US out of the agreement and, in the meantime, the administration would do nothing to implement its NDC on grounds that reducing emissions would harm the U.S. economy and aid competitor countries. Meeting the U.S.’ Paris commitments would, claimed Trump, lead to “millions and millions of families trapped in poverty and joblessness.” [6]  Challenging the scientific consensus regarding the need to cut GHGs, Trump said, “Even if the Paris Agreement were implemented in full, it would only produce a two-tenths of one degree Celsius reduction in global temperature by the year 2100…Tiny, tiny amount.” [7] Praising Trump, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt added, “With this action, you have declared that the people are rulers of this country once again.” [8]

Meanwhile, Trump’s actions clearly emboldened the likes of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro who, like Trump, campaigned on withdrawing Brazil from the agreement.[9] The 2019 Australian elections were seen as a referendum on climate change, and voters returned the openly pro-coal Liberal-National coalition to power.[10] In November 2019, the White House formally submitted its application to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to withdraw from the agreement.[11] Released in October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s “Special Report on 1.5 Degrees Celsius” concluded that, in order to stay within the Paris target of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, human-caused CO2 will need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching “net zero” around 2050.[12] In an open challenge to the IPCC’s credibility, in late 2018, the U.S. joined with Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait to block a consensus motion officially “welcoming” the findings of the report.[13]

Biden the Healer?

Given the Trump-led or inspired efforts to impede the global effort to address climate change, it’s hardly surprising that many liberals and progressives hope that a Biden administration will, by recommitting to the Paris Agreement, begin to repair the damage of the Trump years and get things back on track. According to Niklas Höhne, head of the New Climate Institute think-tank, a Biden-Harris administration would be “like day and night in relation to climate policy and the Paris Agreement.”[14] Peter Betts, a former E.U. and U.K. lead climate negotiator, is already pumped with excitement: “If a Biden administration makes climate change a top priority and all the signs show that he will, it will get the attention of traditional U.S. allies such as Japan, Canada, Australia.”[15]

But if the U.S. is to be a truly progressive force on climate on the global stage, it has to be based on a sober assessment of where things stand in terms of the overall climate challenge and the agreement’s capacity to galvanize a global effort. And while the agreement’s targets reach decades into the future, the past 5 years have begun to make visible some major problems, principal among them that the agreement is based on voluntary commitments.

Right now, there is a real danger that Biden will simply pick up where Obama left off—as though the past 5 years had changed nothing of real significance. Alternatively, the US could recognize how that the agreement’s nonbinding architecture—one the Obama administration almost single-handedly put in place—has to be radically reworked if the agreement is to do what it set out to do. More on this below.

Emissions and Despair

It’s important to note, of course, that the capacity of any global agreement to address climate change is highly questionable given what we know about global energy use and emissions trends.

According to the IPCC, to have any chance of meeting the 45 percent reduction target by 2030, emissions will need to peak almost immediately. But for the first four years after Paris, things were not going well. By late 2019, the haze of optimism (among the world’s elite at least) that shrouded the agreement had been replaced by a smog of gloom. Emissions had continued to rise as though nothing had happened. From carbon pricing to “mobilize private investment” and a variety of policies to stimulate “green growth”, the market-based and investor-focused approaches adopted by neoliberal institutions were doing little to change the upward trajectories of both energy use and GHGs.[16]

If we take a longer view, this should have come as no surprise. Globally, emissions from fossil fuels rose a staggering 60 percent between 1990 and 2013,[17] and CO2 emissions from the power sector alone have increased by more than 45 percent between 2000 and 2016.[18] CO2 emissions from all sources did level off from 2014 to 2016 (mostly due to the economic slowdown in China) but they rose again in 2017—by 2 percent.[19] Then in 2018 global CO2 emissions from all sources hit record levels.[20] Commenting on the 2018 data, the head of the International Energy Agency (IEA), Fatih Birol said: “I have very bad news. My numbers are giving me some despair.”[21]

As a result of the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, CO2 emissions are expected to decline by 8.5 percent in 2020, according to Enerdata’s “Global Energy Trends.”[22] Birol and the IEA anticipate that the annual reduction in CO2 could be larger than the combined impact of the 2008 economic crash and the two world wars.[23] By way of comparison, global CO2 emissions declined by 1.4 percent in 2009 as a result of the 2008–2009 global financial crisis.

But according to a co-produced report from the Dutch government and the New Climate Institute, to be consistent with the IPCC’s 45 percent by 2030 reduction target, “a similar rate of decrease would need to be maintained for decades in order to achieve the 1.5 °C warming limit. Low-carbon development needs to play a key role in countries’ recovery strategies to avoid that emissions bounce back or even overshoot previously projected levels by 2030.”[24] In other words, the emissions reductions that are expected as a result of the economic impacts of Covid-19 in 2020 would, in terms of percentages, need to occur every year from 2021 until 2050 in order to meet the 1.5 degree Celsius target.

… [H]aving the U.S. recommit to the Paris Agreement will mark a significant move in the right direction. But it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the agreement was weak from the outset…

Will You Marry Me?

Clearly, having the U.S. recommit to the Paris Agreement will mark a significant move in the right direction. But it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the agreement was weak from the outset—and the Obama administration made sure it was so. The bull in a China shop intervention of President Obama and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s at Copenhagen in late 2009 led to the six-page “Copenhagen Accord” that essentially killed off the idea of the binding agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol.[25] The Accord was completely contrary to what the UNFCCC and most countries felt was necessary.[26] Eager to keep the U.S. at the negotiations—which is ironic in retrospect given the Trump-instigated exit—the UNFCCC nevertheless accepted the U.S’. demands for a voluntary “pledge and review” system that would, six years later, provide the basis of the Paris Agreement.[27]

Even then, the text of the Paris Agreement was extensively modified to satisfy the Obama Administration’s concerns that the US not be told what to do by foreigners.[28] Close observers of the U.N. climate talks will remember the moment in December 2015 when, as the Paris talks were poised on a knife edge, Secretary of State John Kerry said the US could not support an agreement that said the following: “developed country Parties shall continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emissions targets.” Kerry got the word “shall” removed from the text, replacing it with “should.”[29] This was the diplomatic equivalent of responding to a marriage proposal with “Uh, maybe one day.”

Poof! 600 Billion Tons Vanish into Thin Air

Adding insult to injury, in Paris the US committed to cut greenhouse gas emissions to between 26 percent-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.[30] At the time, the U.S. was severely criticized for its low level of ambition, while at the same time it changed the international benchmark for emissions from 1990 to 2005. By moving the goal posts in this way, the U.S. conveniently erased 15 years of its own emissions increases. Once the U.S. did this, the 2005 benchmark for measuring emissions levels became all the rage, allowing diplomats to collectively disavow the significance of a 15-year period in world history when cumulative emissions increased by more than 600 billion tons of CO2 equivalent.[31]

Furthermore, the decline of coal use in the U.S. in the decade prior to 2015 (mostly replaced by shale gas as a result of the fracking boom) had already taken the U.S. a long way towards its unimpressive Paris target before the agreement was even ratified. Nevertheless, by late 2017 the US was already behind schedule for reaching its 2025 target. According to UNEP, Trump’s policy rollbacks were to blame for the U.S. falling behind, but this assumes (perhaps naively) that, had Senator Clinton been elected president in 2016, the U.S. would have immediately applied itself to the task of meeting its Paris commitments.[32]

Eager to be Led

But isn’t this all in the past? Surely what matters is how things progress from here? Perhaps. But the answer to Trump’s war on climate science and his rejection of the Paris Agreement will not be helped if progressives, out of some sense of relief, allow Democrats to airbrush their own fingerprints from what is a sorry and uninspiring record on climate change.[33]

Indeed, as if to illustrate the future danger, Todd Stern, the U.S.’ chief negotiator in Paris, and John Podesta, Obama’s climate policy advisor, recently co-wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs that, if there was ever a Nobel Prize for Revisionism, it would likely win the award hands down. A Biden electoral victory would, Stern and Podesta suggested, set the stage for “a return by the United States to a position of leadership on climate change…The public, for its part, is increasingly eager to be led, as are large swaths of the business community.” And, “other countries are hungry for the United States to lead again.”[34]

The “return of the global leader” spin from the likes of Stern and Podesta not only attempts to re-write history, it sets the stage for history to repeat itself. Biden’s “Build Back Better” climate plan is soaked in “yes we can” economic nationalism, commitments to job creation, and is strong on union rights. But there is no mention of the U.S.’ commitment to the Paris Agreement and no emissions target for 2030.[35] This is surely not an accident.

But the answer to Trump’s war on climate science and his rejection of the Paris Agreement will not be helped if progressives… allow Democrats to airbrush their own fingerprints from what is a sorry and uninspiring record on climate change.

Herd Immunity

The U.S. was not the only country to submit a weak NDC in Paris 5 years ago. As was noted by the UNFCCC at the time, even if all the submitted NDCs were fully implemented, emissions would rise through 2030 and beyond, increasing the likelihood of 2.7°C or more of warming by century’s end—well above 2°C threshold, let alone the “safer” 1.5 degrees.[36]

According to the influential “Climate Action Tracker” most countries’ NDCs are—when viewed with these two thresholds in mind—either “critically insufficient” or “highly insufficient.”[37]  The “critically insufficient” list currently includes South Korea, Germany, Argentina, and “highly insufficient” list includes China, Japan, Indonesia, and South Africa. Only eight countries are reducing or stabilizing emissions in a manner that might be compatible with the Paris targets, and these eight include the likes of Bhutan, Costa Rica and Morocco.[38]

Fully aware that the NDCs submitted in Paris were not ambitious enough, the UNFCCC proposed that the agreement contain a “ratchet mechanism” whereby countries would review their progress in the context of achieving the “well below 2 degrees target.”[39] In other words, it was assumed that the NDCs submitted in Paris would be a minimum commitment. According to UNEP, the emissions reductions anticipated with current NDCs (about 6 billion tons) need to be roughly tripled to stay on track for 2 degrees Celsius by 2050.[40] For the Paris Agreement to do its job in terms of stabilizing global warming, NDCs would need to become much more ambitious over time. The IPCC reasoned that countries “may be willing to accept more ambitious commitments when they are less legally binding,” and that some kind of peer pressure might compel countries to bolster their respective commitments, perhaps out of fear a being labelled a laggard or worse.[41]

… [T]he voluntary structure, lack of sanctions, and lack of benchmarks for allocating national efforts means that the agreement is simply not doing its job.

It was a big gamble—one that was also designed to keep the US at the table—but 5 years later it is clear that is did not pay off. In fact, according to UNEP’s annual “Emissions Gap Report,” in 2018 most of the  Group of 20 (G20) countries were not on target to meet their current NDCs.[42]  Alongside the U.S., these include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Indonesia, Japan, Republic of Korea, South Africa, and the Philippines. [43] And although China, India and Russia are all on track to meet their NDCs, this is hardly a cause for celebration. The NDCs submitted by these three major countries were pretty “low ambition” to begin with. Russia—the world’s fourth-largest emitter—has almost achieved its 2030 target without really trying.[44] China’s NDC aimed to peak its emissions and begin bringing them back down before 2030, which is hardly reassuring.  Clearly, when everyone is a laggard, no one is—and reputational herd immunity prevails.

So, what happens next? The Paris Agreement stipulates that countries must, by the end of 2020, submit new NDCs, and of this writing 12 have done so—one of the 12 being China. Once the U.S. rejoins the Accord, its new NDC will need to be far more ambitious than the one submitted in Paris. And it can then develop a plan, one anchored in a “global public goods” approach, that is serious about achieving emissions reductions that are consistent with the “well below 2 degrees” target. Some of the stronger commitments made in Biden’s Building Back Better could be integrated into the new NDC, but this will mean quantifying what these commitments mean in terms of measurable and verifiable CO2 reductions—something that has yet to occur.

But if the U.S. wants to show genuine global leadership over the longer term, then it will need to immediately admit that it was wrong. Following the election of President Obama, it compromised the global talks at a crucial time in order to accommodate energy-intensive business interests and their congressional servants at home. The shift to a voluntary “pledge-and-review” system brought about a crucial change in policy architecture. It may have brought consensus in Paris five years ago, but now that the agreement is in its implementation phase, the voluntary structure, lack of sanctions, and lack of benchmarks for allocating national efforts means that the agreement is simply not doing its job.

The nonbinding nature of the NDCs means that there is nothing in the agreement that requires a country to justify its NDC in relationship to reaching “well below 2 degrees Celsius.” As a former U.S. State Department official wrote during the time of the Paris talks, “The international legal gold standard is a treaty, a binding document that can be enforced by courts and arbitration tribunals. Such agreements comprise more than expressions of intent; they contain codified, enforceable rules, along with sanctions for non-compliance. Indeed, they must be ratified by national parliaments, so that they become a part of domestic law. The Paris agreement is none of these things.”[45]

A new administration can make amends by championing amendments to the agreement that can give it some teeth. Other major emitters are likely to be happy to maintain the current “voluntary” state of affairs and thus continue with ‘business as usual.’ But this is a recipe for disaster—and the U.S. could be forceful in terms of pointing this out. As it stands right now, other countries can simply blame the U.S. for its woeful twenty-five year record of inaction, one that long preceded the Trump era.

A new administration can make amends by championing amendments to the agreement that can give it some teeth.

Taking the Global Green New Deal to Glasgow

Few on the left will hold out much hope that a Biden administration will have what it takes to break with the past. But this could be a good time for the left of the Democratic Party and other supporters of the Green New Deal (GND) to reclaim the initiative on climate.

The radical vision of the Green New Deal put forward by House Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Senators Sanders and Merkley has become blurred as a result of the failure of Sanders to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. And the more recent deliberations around the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force didn’t help either. Biden’s side of the Task Force accepted many climate justice and equity-based principles (which are mostly qualitative) and threw in things like “500 million solar panels” to be installed by 2025 (it’s a nice round number, for sure). The task force also recommended that the U..S commit to “rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement” and be ready to announce a “more ambitious” NDC.[46]

The next UNFCCC meeting in Glasgow in late 2021 could provide a stage to pressure Biden (and, I suspect, probably Stern and Podesta) and rally support for the GND from abroad. The likes of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders can begin to pressure the new administration to re-open discussions with the UNFCCC on strengthening the agreement. Thus far the discussions on the Green New Deal here in the U.S. have not addressed the need for a radically altered global climate agreement. This can, and should, be addressed and the left has an important role to play in that regard.

Five years have passed since the Paris Agreement was negotiated. We know what went wrong. We don’t need another five years to realize what needs to be done.



[1] UNFCCC, Paris Agreement, Article 4,



[4] COP-21: UN chief hails new climate change agreement as “monumental triumph”, UN News Centre, 12 Dec. 2015,





[9] Bruce Douglas, Brazil’s President-Elect Questions Paris Climate Deal Again, BLOOMBERG

(Dec. 12, 2018),


[10] Damien Cave, It Was Supposed to be Australia’s Climate Change Election, What

Happened? N.Y. TIMES (May 19, 2019),


[11] Lisa Friedman, Trump Serves Notice to Quit Paris Climate Agreement, N.Y. TIMES (Nov. 4,


Technically, the US is still a party to Paris, because—according to the UNFCCC—nations cannot officially remove themselves from the Agreement until November 4th, 2020 – which is, coincidentally, the day after election day.[11]







[16] For a recent summary of the these arguments, see:

[17] [15]

[18] IEA/IRENA, Perspectives for the Energy Transition: Investment Needs for a Low-Carbon Energy System. March 2017,

[19] Carbon Brief “Analysis: Global CO2 Emissions Set to Rise in 2017 after Three-Year ‘Plateau,’” November 13, 2017,

[20] Brief “Analysis: Global CO2 Emissions Set to Rise in 2017 after Three-Year ‘Plateau,’” November 13, 2017,; PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, Trends in global CO2 and total greenhouse gas emissions: Summary of the 2017 report, September 28, 2017,; IPCC, IPCC Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report, 2015,; Global Carbon Project, Global Carbon Budget 2017, November 13, 2017,


[22] Enerdata, 2020. Cited by



[24] PBL Netherlands Environment Assessment Agency/New Climate Institute (2020) Exploring the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on global emission projections.


[26] Making the NDCs legally binding would have triggered the need for ratification of the Paris

Agreement by the U.S. Senate.

[27] As Christina Voigt has observed, “compliance in its legal sense is only possible with provisions that set legally binding obligations for parties.” Christina Voigt, The Compliance and Implementation Mechanism of the Paris Agreement, 25 REV. EUROPEAN CMTY. & INT’L ENVTL. L. 161, 166 (2016).

[28] See this excellent paper by Noah Sachs: The Paris Agreement in the 2020s: Breakdown or Breakup? (October 3, 2019). Ecology Law Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 1, 2019, Available at SSRN: See also Noah Feldman, The Paris Accord and the Reality of Presidential Power, BLOOMBERG (June 2, 2017),


[30] UNFCCC, Nationally Determined Contribution – United States

[31] “CO2e” is a measure of all GHGs, converted to CO2. See:

[32] UNEP (2018). The Emissions Gap Report 2018, (2018). The Emissions Gap Report 2018,

[33] For example, see Remarks on the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, 2016 DAILY COMP. PRES. DOC. 666 (Oct. 5, 2016) President Obama said, “We continued to lead by example with our historic joint announcement with China two years ago, where we put forward even more ambitious climate targets. And that achievement encouraged dozens of other countries to set more ambitious climate targets of their own. And that, in turn, paved the way for our success in Paris.”



[36] Simon Evans, UN report: Climate pledges fall short of cheapest route to 2C limit, CARBON BRIEF (Oct. 30, 2015, 5:51 PM),



[39] According to the Agreement, “A Party may at any time ‘adjust’ its NDC with a view to enhancing its level of ambition.”

[40] United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), The Emissions Gap Report 2018, See also:

[41] Robert Stavins et al., International Cooperation: Agreements and Instruments (Climate Change

2014: Mitigation of Climate Change, IPCC Working Group III 27 2014).

[42] United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), The Emissions Gap Report 2018,


[44] Alec Luhn, Russia Ratifies Paris Climate Accord – But Targets are ‘Critically Insufficient’,


[46] Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force Recommendations: Combating the Climate Crisis and Pursuing Environmental Justice

Author Biography

Sean Sweeney is the director of the International Program on Labor, Climate & Environment at the School of Labor and Urban Studies, City University of New York. He also coordinates Trade Unions for EnergyDemocracy (TUED) a global network of 64 unions from 22 countries. TUED advocates for democratic control and social ownership of energy resources, infrastructure, and options.