Climate Action

What the Paris Agreement means in 2019

Ahead of the U.N. Climate Summit, former UN spokesperson gives update on historic climate agreement

In a few days’ time, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will host a Summit of Presidents and Prime Minister intent on raising national and international action on the biggest existential threat to humanity: climate change.

The summit is part of the next wave of ambition aimed at getting more nations, and the economies that underpin them, on track to meet the landmark 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement. The agreement’s aims are straight-forward enough: Countries need to work at home and abroad to limit global temperature rises this century to well below 2 degrees Celsius.

The agreement’s more ambitious target, and one that has been gaining traction among small islands and increasing numbers of scientists, is to keep a global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees. This offers the best chance for protecting the most vulnerable from extreme weather and rising sea levels while conserving vital nature-based systems like coral reefs.

Overall it means the world needs to deliver what some term a climate-neutral, carbon-neutral or net-zero emission global economy by mid-century via a series of what you might call “ratcheting up” moments along the way.

California roots

The choreography behind this next step up started 12 months ago when the city of San Francisco, California, hosted cities, states, regions, business, investors and civil societies at the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS).

Paris happened in part because the levers of the “real economy,” visible as CEOs of large companies and mayors of major cities, wanted it, and governments felt they were supported by business, sub-national governments and the public.

GCAS attempted to send that clear, strong signal of support from San Francisco in 2018 to New York in 2019.

And it did, with thousands of new pledges and plans announced on everything from big rollouts of electric vehicles to commitments to see more than $32 trillion worth of investments flow into low-carbon economy improvements:

  • More than 700 leading companies with over $16 trillion of market capitalization have now taken climate commitments ranging from science-based targets in line with the Paris Agreement to pledges of 100-percent renewable energy
  • More than 200 states, regions and local authorities have, as part of the Under2Coalition, committed to cut their emissions by 80–95 percent by 2050, including California and Bad Württemberg.

The coalition represents more than 1.3 billion people and $30 trillion in GDP — equivalent to 17 percent of the global population and nearly 40 percent of the global economy.

Next steps

On September 23 this year, the baton is handed to heads of state. They are being asked to bring strengthened climate action plans, known as Nationally-Determined Contributions, which are bigger and better than the ones put down in the runup to Paris.

In a perfect world, some will do just that. Others may signal they are ready to do this at the UN climate conference, scheduled in Chile later this year, or at the UN climate conference, likely to be hosted by the UK in 2020. Other countries may defer until the early- to mid-2020s.


Movement is certainly happening in advance of this September’s summit. Finland, for example, announced in June that it would be carbon neutral in 2035, enshrining the plan into national law.

Government sources in China say they are confident China will peak its carbon dioxide emissions in 2022, setting the stage for decoupling its carbon pollution from economic growth. This would be eight years before the country’s target under its initial Paris Agreement commitment.

In August Prime Minister Modi of India said his country would largely meet its 2030 targets under its existing plan in around a year and a half, citing India’s big increase in installed solar power as a result of a French-Indian partnership forged in Paris in 2015.

For an ordinary citizen it can be hard to unravel what progress looks like or to understand the importance of these seemingly endless climate summits and conferences, but one needs to see them in the context of time and the long game.

The adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015 did not pop out of nowhere, like a magician pulling a white rabbit out of a hat to great applause.

It took over 20 years involving millions of people to build the scientific, economic and social case for climate action. This first started with the establishment of a climate stabilization treaty — the UNFCCC — at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, and then, through the first emission reduction treaty for industrialized nations, the Kyoto Protocol of 1997.

The first attempt at a truly global treaty of all nations taking commitments happened and failed in Copenhagen in 2009, perhaps because insufficient numbers of countries really believed they could seriously combat climate change without stressing their economies.

By Paris, the case for action had become unassailable and the threat of inaction increasingly unconscionable on economic, scientific and moral grounds.

Going forward

Critics may brand these 20 years as wasted, and there is, of course, stark truth in this. But it was not totally lost time. There have been some remarkable achievements that have made stepped-up climate action today even more doable.

Penetration of renewable energy is now doubling every 5.5 years, perhaps even faster. The cost per unit of electricity has tumbled from tens of dollars to just a few cents and today wind is price-competitive with coal and solar is almost there.

Perhaps finally the electrification of transportation is gaining speed as states like California and countries like France and the UK set clear policy shifts.

Today there is also new public mobilization from youth in many countries, increasingly backed by parents and grandparents

But in some areas of the global economy, the change so urgently needed is lagging far behind especially when it comes to emissions from land, forests and agriculture. And that is despite the multiple benefits to biodiversity, water supplies, food production and climate.

Happily ever after?

So, the U.N. Secretary-General’s Climate Summit is a chapter in a long and winding book full of drama, set-backs, steps-forward, shadows and heroism.

New and surprising chapters are being written all the time—the emergence of Greta Thunberg and youth, backed by parents, is a phenomenon that has been remarkable, taking politicians to business leaders and established NGOs by surprise.

But the final chapters have not been written and will not be written for several more years before we know if this journey has a happy ending.

Are we on an irreversible path to a low carbon world? Are we finally transforming our economies after two centuries of development based on fossil fuels as a result of these treaties, summits and civic mobilization? Yes, even when changes in some governments can sometimes appear to conspire against it.

But will we do it fast enough, and at the pace and scale, needed? That’s the burning, open question that no one with their hand on their heart can answer.

Image at top: People celebrate the adoption of the Paris Agreement. Photo credit: UNclimatechange, Flickr