The NCSL Blog

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By Melanie Condon

Over the past two weeks, representatives from 196 countries gathered in Paris for the 2015 United Nations (U.N.) Climate Change Conference, where they discussed a strategy for global action on reducing emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) and the effects of climate change. 

Power plantThe conference began with the majority of the nations in attendance sharing their current climate plans that had been voluntarily submitted to the U.N. prior to the start of the conference. Examples of these pledges include:

  • The United States’ Clean Power Plan, finalized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in August 2015, which aims to reduce GHG emissions by 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. See NCSL’s Web brief on the Clean Power Plan for more details. 
  • The European Union’s pledge to reduce emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.
  • China’s plan to peak emissions, and receive 20 percent of its electricity from carbon neutral sources, by 2030.
  • Brazil’s pledge focuses on deforestation in the Amazon and aims to reduce emissions 37 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

These individual country pledges, which totaled 146, were the backbone of the global agreement that the conferees agreed upon after two weeks of discussions during the summit.

The Paris Global Climate Accord

On Dec. 12, at the conclusion of the Paris climate talks, negotiators approved a final climate accord.

“The Paris agreement on climate change is a monumental success for the planet and its people,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said when the accord was approved. 

The primary goal of the accord is to reduce GHG emission levels so that global temperatures stay below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit from pre-industrial averages by 2100. How will the signees attempt to accomplish this? The countries that sign the accord pledge to “reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible” although no date is specified. Additionally, every five years, beginning in 2020, the signee countries will have to deliver a new national pledge on how they will further reduce GHG emissions. Such pledges should represent a “progression” from the previous pledge and be as ambitious as the “best science” will allow. The agreement also states that countries should aim to achieve net zero emissions by the second half of the century, though again, no specific timeline is offered.

To keep the signees on target, the deal calls for reporting and monitoring measures that are “facilitative, non-intrusive, non-punitive … respectful of national sovereignty, and avoid placing undue burden on parties.”

On adapting to the effects of climate change, the pledge states that countries should engage in adaptation planning processes. Furthermore, there is a “loss and damage” section for those effects that are deemed to be unadaptable to, for which the accord proposes the use of measures such as risk insurance facilities, climate risk pooling and “other insurance solutions.”

The climate financing to achieve the goals of the plan will come from developed countries, such as the U.S., which set a nonbinding objective of providing more than $100 billion per year in public and private financing to poorer nations by 2020. Developing countries may also contribute funds if they so choose. Developed countries must communicate their climate donations every two years.

The accord will become legally binding if 55 countries that represent at least 55 percent of global GHG emissions sign the agreement and then ratify, accept or approve it in their country. The U.S. administration does not believe it needs U.S. Senate approval to ratify the agreement based largely on authority it was given in 1992 when the Senate ratified the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. However, upon hearing of the accord, U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said “Senate leadership has already been outspoken in its position that the United States is not legally bound to any agreement … or financial commitment without approval by Congress.”

Environmental groups in the U.S. have been generally pleased with the Paris accord, though some feel it does not go far enough.

This final agreement, aims to help the countries build on their individual pledges and creates accountability and transparency for each country.

Melanie Condon is policy specialist for the Natural Resources and Infrastructure Committee in the Washington, D.C. office of NCSL.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.