Paris climate agreement: a quick guide

10 November 2017

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Sophie Power
Science, Technology, Environment and Resources Section



The Paris Climate Agreement entered into force on 4 November 2016. The Paris Agreement is made under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Climate Change Convention, also referred to as the UNFCCC). Australia announced its ratification of the Paris Agreement on 10 November 2016.

This Quick Guide gives a brief history of negotiations under the Climate Change Convention, followed by an overview of the Paris Agreement and Australia’s contribution to the Agreement.


History of international climate negotiations

The Climate Change Convention was first agreed in 1992, following growing global concern about climate change, including the 1990 publication of the First Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The Convention sets out a framework aimed at stabilising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to prevent ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’. The Climate Change Convention entered into force in 1994, and now has a near‑universal membership, with 197 parties having ratified the Convention. Parties to the Convention meet regularly, including at the annual Conference of the Parties (COP), where they make decisions to promote the effective implementation of the Convention and adopt other instruments.

The Kyoto Protocol is an instrument made under the Climate Change Convention which was adopted at the third Conference of the Parties (COP 3) in 1997, although it did not enter into force until 2005.[1] The Kyoto Protocol obliges some developed countries (known as ‘Annex I Parties’) to reduce their GHG emissions. The Protocol placed a heavier burden on developed nations in recognition that they are largely responsible for high levels of GHG emissions (this is known as the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’). Australia signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1998, but did not ratify until 2007. The first ‘commitment’ period of the Kyoto Protocol ran from 2008 to 2012. Australia met and exceeded its first period Kyoto Protocol target of 108 per cent of 1990 emissions levels by 2012.

At COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009, it was hoped a new legally binding agreement would be reached to follow on from the Kyoto Protocol. Although that meeting fell short of those expectations, the Copenhagen Accord did, among other matters, recognise the need to reduce global GHG emissions so as to limit the increase in global temperature to below 2 °C.

The Doha Amendment, adopted at COP 18 in 2012, provides for the operation of the Kyoto Protocol to be extended with a second commitment period that runs until 2020. The Doha Amendment is not yet in force, having not yet been ratified by a sufficient number of parties, although Australia has ratified the Amendment. This is discussed further in the Parliamentary Library’s Quick Guide Australia and the Doha Amendment. In any case, the Paris Agreement will replace the Kyoto Protocol from 2020.

Overview of the Paris Agreement

What is the Paris Agreement trying to achieve?

The Paris Agreement aims to ‘strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change’, and its stated goal, in Article 2 of the Agreement, is to limit the increase in the global average temperature to ‘well below 2 °C’ above pre‑industrial levels. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global warming of more than 2 °C would have serious consequences, such as an increase in the number of extreme weather events.

The Paris Agreement also states, for the first time in an international climate agreement, that we should ‘pursue efforts’ to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C (Article 2). In Paris, the IPCC was asked to provide a new special report in 2018 (known as SR1.5) on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. In addition, parties are aiming to peak global greenhouse gas emissions ‘as soon as possible’ (Article 4).

While the Paris Agreement was welcomed as an important breakthrough in international climate negotiations, some climate scientists have criticised it, suggesting that it is too weak and will not meet its aim of limiting global warming to 2 °C.

Nationally Determined Contributions

In the lead up to the Paris COP, parties submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), which set out each country’s plan for addressing climate change, including a target for reducing GHG emissions, and how the countries intend to achieve that target. Many INDCs also included an ‘adaptation component’, outlining how a country plans to deal with the impacts of climate change. Around 165 parties have submitted INDCs.

This process was quite different to the Kyoto Protocol, under which only developed countries had emissions reduction targets, determined through a lengthy negotiation process. Instead, the Paris Agreement provides flexibility for parties to propose their own targets.

Under the Paris Agreement, these INDCs have become ‘NDCs’ (dropping the ‘intended’). Under Article 4 of the Paris Agreement, NDCs will be reviewed and updated every five years, with the idea being that updated NDCs will represent a progression on the previous contribution and ‘reflect the highest possible ambition’. This has been referred to as the ‘ratchet mechanism’ or the ‘ambition mechanism’. Parties will also be required to report regularly on emissions and progress towards their NDCs under the ‘transparency framework’ (see Article 13). This has been described as the ‘backbone’ of the Paris Agreement.

In November 2015, the UNFCCC released a synthesis report on the total effect of the submitted INDCs. This report concluded that INDCs are expected to deliver sizeable emission reductions and slow down GHG emissions growth in the coming decade, but would not be sufficient to reverse the upward trend of global emissions by 2025 and 2030. An updated synthesis report, published in May 2016, concluded that ‘much greater emission reduction efforts than those associated with the INDCs will be required in the period after 2025 and 2030 to hold the temperature rise below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels’.

Other aspects of the Agreement

Other key aspects of the Paris Agreement include:

  • climate change adaptation and resilience (that is, dealing with the impacts of a changing climate) also feature in the Paris Agreement and in the INDCs of many countries
  • climate finance: Article 9.1 of the Paris Agreement states that developed country parties shall provide financial resources to assist developing country parties with both their mitigation and adaptation efforts. Article 9.2 encourages all parties to provide financial support voluntarily, regardless of their economic circumstances. The Green Climate Fund, established in 2010 under the UNFCCC, will play an important role in relation to this aspect of the Paris Agreement
  • a new ‘Paris Committee on Capacity Building’ (PCCB), designed to help ensure that all countries—particularly developing countries—can meet their commitments under the Paris Agreement. The committee’s terms of reference were adopted at COP 22 in Marrakech in 2016 and
  • a mechanism to ‘promote compliance’ (see Article 15), which will operate in a ‘non-adversarial and non‑punitive’ manner, although the full details of this mechanism are still to be worked out.

Ratification of the Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement provides that it will come into force 30 days after at least 55 parties that make up at least 55 per cent of global emissions have ratified the Agreement. This threshold was reached on 5 October 2016, meaning that the Paris Agreement entered into force on 4 November 2016 (just before COP 22 in Marrakech).

The Paris Agreement has now been ratified by 169 parties, including China, India, the European Union and New Zealand. The United States (US) ratified the Agreement but, in August 2017, notified the United Nations of its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement ‘as soon as it is eligible to do so’. Under Article 28 of the Paris Agreement, the US must stay in the Agreement until November 2020. The US will, however, continue to participate in COP meetings under the UNFCCC.

In Australia, the Paris Agreement was tabled in Federal Parliament on 31 August 2016, along with a National Interest Analysis. Following consideration by the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, which recommended that Australia ratify the Agreement, Australia announced its ratification of the Paris Agreement on 10 November 2016.

What happens next?

There are still many details relating to the implementation of the Paris Agreement to be agreed, and some of this detail is currently being discussed in Bonn at COP 23. During this and future COPs, parties will continue preparations for entry into force of the Paris Agreement by 2020. In particular, parties are now in the process of developing the detailed rules, processes and guidelines associated with the implementation of the Agreement, known as the Paris Agreement ‘rule book’, which is expected to be completed by 2018. This includes, in particular, the rules for measuring and reporting on greenhouse gas emissions (or GHG accounting rules), with the exact requirements negotiated by 2018 and adopted in 2020.

A number of other key timeframes have already been agreed. These include:

  • a ‘facilitative dialogue’ in 2018, which will review parties’ collective efforts towards the Paris Agreement’s goals (see paragraph 20 of the COP decision adopting the Paris Agreement)
  • a requirement for parties to submit new or updated NDCs by 2020, depending on their current mitigation target timeframe. Countries with a mitigation target timeframe of 2025 will need to submit a new NDC. Parties with a mitigation target timeframe of 2030 (such as Australia) need to ‘communicate or update’ their NDC. As noted earlier, parties will then be required to update their NDCs every five years under the ‘ratchet mechanism’ and
  • a ‘global stocktake’ in 2023 to assess collective progress towards the goal of keeping the increase in global average temperature to within 2 °C (see Article 14). This global stocktake will then reoccur every five years. These stocktakes are intended to inform parties in updating and enhancing their NDCs.

What is Australia’s contribution?

Australia’s INDC states that Australia will ‘implement an economy-wide target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030’. Comparing targets between member countries is complicated by the use of different baseline years as well as different target years. For example, in comparison:

Australia’s 2030 emissions reduction target has been described by some as less ambitious than that of most developed nations. Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis produced by four international research organisations, has rated Australia’s target as ‘insufficient’, while Australia’s own Climate Change Authority recommended in 2015 that Australia should have a target of a 30% reduction from 2000 emissions levels by 2025 and further reductions by 2030 of 40–60% below 2000 levels. However, the Australian Government maintains that ‘our target is a fair contribution for Australia’ and argues that it exceeds those of other countries on a per capita basis as well as in terms of emissions intensity.

Can Australia meet its Paris target?

There has been some debate as to whether Australia’s current policies are sufficient to achieve our Paris target. Organisations such as the Climate Institute, the Grattan Institute, and the Federal Government’s Climate Change Authority consider that achieving the Paris target will require a strengthened policy framework. Others suggest Australia will ‘comfortably’ meet the 2030 target, as a result of state renewable energy schemes.

However, the Australian Government considers that Australia will meet its 2030 target ‘through policies built on its proven Direct Action approach’. These policies include the Emissions Reduction Fund and its associated Safeguard Mechanism, as well as a number of other policies designed to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and increase energy productivity. Figure 1 below shows the key relevant policies and the amount of emissions reduction that the Government considers can potentially be achieved by these policies, relative to Australia’s 2030 target. At the same time, the Government is also currently conducting a review of Australia’s climate change policies, to ‘take stock of Australia’s progress in reducing emissions, and to ensure the Government’s policies remain effective in achieving Australia’s 2030 target and Paris Agreement commitments’. The review will also look at a potential long-term emissions reduction goal beyond 2030. A discussion paper has been released for public comment and the review will conclude by the end of 2017.

Figure 1: Australia’s climate policies and their degree of greenhouse gas abatement

Australia’s climate policies and their degree of greenhouse gas abatement

Source: Department of the Environment, The Australian Government’s action on climate change, 2016.


Table 1: Reference list of relevant international agreements

Agreement Links on AustLII
Paris Climate Agreement (Paris Agreement) Paris Agreement [2016] ATS 24 (entered into force for Australia 10 December 2016).
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Climate Change Convention) United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change done in New York, 9 May 1992, [1994] ATS 2 (entered into force for generally and for Australia 21 March 1994).
Kyoto Protocol Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, done in Kyoto, 11 December 1997, [2008] ATS 2 (entered into force for Australia 11 March 2008).
Doha Amendment Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol, done in Doha, 8 December 2012, [2016] ATNIA 11, [2016] ATNIF 24.


[1].     For multilateral treaties, signature alone is usually not enough and ‘ratification’ or ‘accession’ is required for countries to be legally bound. Even then, a treaty usually does not come into force until a certain number of ratifications have been received, depending on the terms of the treaty.


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