This briefing on the outcomes of COP 21 - the Paris Agreement - has been prepared by WinACC's Science and Technology Advisory Panel. Download as pdf.

“By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.” (George Monbiot)

“The almost euphoric atmosphere that accompanied the drafts could not be squared with the content” (Kevin Anderson)


The scientific evidence for human-made climate change now seems irrefutable.[1]

Emissions of greenhouse gases, principally from burning fossil fuels, have caused the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) to increase by over 40% and global warming is approaching 1°C (both relative to pre-industrial time). The predicted and observed consequences of warming include rising sea-levels and more frequent extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and storms. Scientists can now attribute some of these events, in part, to climate change.

In 2014 the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) showed that cumulative carbon dioxide emissions are directly related to global warming.[2] Thus to have a two-thirds chance of keeping global warming below 2°C this century, the world must have reached net zero carbon emissions within 20 years.[3]

21 years after the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed, the 21st Conference of the Parties to the Convention (COP 21) took place in Paris. The delegates, aware of the above constraints, had to agree how to achieve a substantial and rapid reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions.

Positive outcomes

The draft Paris Agreement to be signed by 195 countries [Parties] is to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change”.

The Agreement[4] recognises that “climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet and thus requires the widest possible cooperation by all countries”, and that “deep reductions in global emissions will be required in order to achieve the ultimate objective of the Convention”.

It emphasises “the urgent need to address the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties’ mitigation pledges in terms of global annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and aggregate emission pathways consistent with holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels”, and it acknowledges “the need to promote universal access to sustainable energy in developing countries”.

Politicians were afraid that greenhouse gas reduction policies might be compulsory. To avoid this, virtually all countries produced an outline of what they planned to do to keep global warming in check (called an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution or INDC). These are accessible online. Countries “shall” revise these every five years to increase their effectiveness.

Although the Agreement talks of keeping the temperature rise to 1.5°C, this is unlikely to be achieved by 2050.

Negative outcomes

None of the actions in the Agreement is legally binding on any nation.

The enactment of each country’s INDC is that country’s responsibility. Each country can choose whether or not its INDC will be legally binding on itself. Most countries’ INDCs are not as strong as they need to be. The scientific consensus is that even if all countries did all they say we’d get global warming of 2.7 to 3.7°C.

There is an agreement to provide financial and technical assistance for developing nations to build sustainable low-carbon economies. The agreement “strongly urges developed country Parties to scale up their level of financial support, with a concrete roadmap to achieve the goal of jointly providing USD 100 billion annually by 2020”.[5] Although some developed countries have made commitments, there is no certainty that these pledges will be kept.

Few figures are presented and there are no greenhouse gas emissions targets, expressed as either an amount or as a deadline. International aviation and shipping are not included.

Have governments solved the problem?

The draft Paris Agreement depends on countries voluntarily sticking to (and exceeding) their INDC pledges (which only extend to around 2030) and making further pledges together with taking further actions consistent with the 2°C goal.  In reality, most countries do not yet have credible plans to meet even their existing INDC pledges.

The situation in the UK

Government policy should comply with UK legislation which says greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by 80% relative to 1990 by 2050 and requires the government to set successive, progressively reducing, five-year carbon emissions budgets.

Emissions have decreased since 1990, partly due to the use of more renewable energy and also partly due to us buying goods made in China instead of here. This just causes the emissions from making the goods to be allocated to China instead of the UK.

Now, government is switching the UK away from renewables and back towards fossil fuels. Recent actions include compensating local people for fracking, a huge new programme of investment in gas-fired power stations and £175 million to support inefficient diesel-powered backup systems. The UK government cancelled funding for its £1 billion carbon capture and storage prototype even though it acknowledges that carbon capture and storage is required if fossil fuels continue to be burnt for an extended period.  The government plans to maximise economic recovery of North Sea oil and gas backed by increased subsidies (the UK is the only G7 nation that is increasing fossil fuel subsidies).

The UK government’s stance

The UK government sees climate change as a threat to our economic security, with energy security as its first priority.  They want to shift to low-carbon energy while keeping energy secure and cheap, and working in a competitive market economy.  They will focus on where the biggest emissions cuts may be achieved swiftly and cheaply.  Coal-burning power stations will be phased out by 2025 providing that a shift to gas can be achieved within this timescale. 

Nuclear power is also central to the government’s plan with a new fleet of nuclear stations planned to follow Hinkley Point C in the mid-2020s. The production of heat for homes and industry creates a third of all carbon emissions but slow progress has been made in cutting them.  The government is looking to introduce a tax and policy framework to streamline business energy efficiency measures, and to ensure a million more homes receive the benefits of energy efficiency improvements by the end of this parliament.

In a recent speech DECC Secretary of State Amber Rudd said “... new, clean technologies will only be sustainable at the scale we need if they are cheap enough. When costs come down, as they have in onshore wind and solar, so should support.” Planning controls on new onshore wind have been tightened.  “We have enough onshore wind in the pipeline to meet our 2020 expectations”.  Offshore wind will be supported, she said, but only if costs fall as expected. She wants renewable sources to bear the costs associated with their intermittency of supply.

What do we want to see happen next?

The Paris Agreement will be formally signed from April 2016. Countries that have not signed the Kyoto Protocol (e.g. Canada, Japan, Russia, USA) ought to do so.

Future INDCs will be reviewed every 5 years and are expected to demonstrate “higher ambition”. Even so, current INDCs suggest global emissions will rise until 2030 when emissions by geographical region, in order of decreasing magnitude, will be China, USA, India, EU, Africa and Japan.[6]

Ideally at least parts of the Paris Agreement should become mandatory. Future INDCs should include emissions from international aviation and shipping, and emissions from the manufacture of imported goods (consumption emissions) and overseas military activities.

Fossil fuel energy demand by developed countries must be reduced. Energy supplied from renewable sources must overtake fossil fuels quickly. Mechanisms to increasingly cap, and eventually eliminate, the extraction of fossil fuels are also needed.

What will influence politicians to treat climate change as an urgent matter?

We need to keep up the pressure by writing letters and by campaigning. Storms, flooding, heat waves and similar extreme weather may drive some administrations to act.

What should I do now?

Climate change is an issue for all of us. Projected increases in world population this century will create additional pressures.  Individuals can still make a difference by changing their lifestyles to reduce energy demand and to use energy more efficiently e.g. flying less, insulating homes, driving less and reducing meat consumption.

Additional information

CarbonBrief have produced some useful additional information and explanations of the Paris Agreement

The Paris agreement on Climate Change - What happens next

Timeline: the Paris agreement’s ‘ratchet mechanism’


[1] Allen, M.R., Barros, V.R., and many others. “CLIMATE CHANGE 2014 SYNTHESIS REPORT Approved Summary for Policymakers.” Geneva: IPCC, November 1, 2014 state that anthropogenic warming is more than 95% likely.

[2] IPCC AR5 Synthesis Report 2014, Section 2.1, final paragraph.

[3] Anderson, Kevin. “Duality in Climate Science.” Nature Geoscience, October 12, 2015, pp.2.

[4] UNFCCC, Adoption of the Paris Agreement, Draft decision -/CP.21.

[5] UNFCCC, Adoption of the Paris Agreement, Adoption, Paragraph 115.

[6] Anon (IEA). “Energy and Climate Change; World Energy Outlook Special Report.” Paris, France: International Energy Agency (IEA), 2015, Table 2.2 + Fig. 2.11.