How Important Is the Paris Climate Agreement?

What is the Paris Agreement? How important is it to climate change?

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #241

How much can the Agreement actually curb temperatures?

Let’s return to the president’s concern that the Paris Climate Agreement would only produce two-tenths of a degree of impact on global temperatures by 2100. The statistic has been linked to an MIT study conducted in 2016 called “How much of a difference will the Paris Agreement make?”

In the publication, the authors do indeed stress that the Paris Agreement is only a first step towards curbing rising global temperatures. Specifically they state that “even under the same level of commitment of the Paris Agreement after 2030, our study indicates a 95% probability that the world will warm by more than 2 degrees Celsius by 2100”.

The study found that global warming would slow by a predicted 0.6 to 1.1 degrees Celsius by 2100 if all countries followed through with the pledges made in the Paris Agreement. However, within the framework of the Agreement, these pledges are only made through 2030. There is, of course, a possibility that countries will strengthen their commitments further capping the rise in global temperatures.

The more pessimistic 0.2 degree limit cited by the president is not the expected difference between implementing the Paris Agreement and no climate policy at all, as was suggested in his speech. The study instead notes that the implementation of the Paris Agreement would decrease the average global temperature by 0.2 degrees more relative to the earlier Copenhagen agreement. The researchers on the study have further stated that “the Paris Agreement is an unprecedented and vital effort by nearly 200 countries to respond to the urgent threat of global climate change.”

The impact of the US decision to withdraw remains to be seen. Will the administration take a different approach to tackling climate change by focusing on innovation in the growing area of clean energy and negative emissions technologies? Will inaction on the part of the US encourage other countries to fall short of their pledges to cut emissions? For opinions on the importance of the US decision, check out the collection of reactions from scientists and politicians published in the journal Science and from scientists published in the journal Nature.

Whatever your opinion on the Paris Agreement – it goes too far, it does not go far enough – the complexity of climate change and our approach to mitigating its effects requires that we take care in the interpretation of the related scientific and economic research and leave our bias at the door.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Ask Science’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Ask Science on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Image courtesy of shutterstock.


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About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.