The decrease in fossil fuel production and use needed over the next 9 years to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (Source: UNEP). In the midst of the health crisis, the Paris Agreement is celebrating its fifth anniversary. What progress has been made and what still needs to be done?

Another day, the streets of the French capital are tourist-free, the few faces are covered by masks; the shadow of the pandemic falls over the streets, a third post-Christmas wave threatens the city. This scene has nothing to do with that afternoon five years ago when, on the outskirts of Paris, hundreds of world leaders met, trying, by all means, to ensure that COP21 would not become another failed climate summit. It was December 12, 2015 and the United Nations announced an ambitious climate agenda after long hours of intense negotiations; the historic Paris Agreement was born. 

That afternoon five years ago marked a new beginning. For the first time in history, rich and impoverished countries worked hand in hand in pursuit of a common goal: to stop climate change. However, the initial euphoria began to fade: on the eve of the last climate summit, held in Madrid in 2019, world leaders spoke about “failure” and “insufficient measures“. COP25 ended with a mere declaration of intentions that should have materialized into concrete strategies at the Glasgow summit, which should have been held in December and which, due to the health crisis, has been postponed until next November. It seems that the message “we’ll be watching you” launched by Youth for Climate at the end of the last COP encountered a firewall in the form of a pandemic – which further threatens the achievement of the Paris Agreement’s objectives.

Heading for 2030 with a steady pace

Even after the United States former president, Donald Trump, withdrew his country from the agreement last November, the consensus remains strong. The resolution came back into force under current President Joe Biden, who as a matter of priority accepted the Paris agreement and each of its articles and clauses on the first day of his term in office. Unlike what happened when the United States decided not to ratify the Kyoto treaty in 1997, Trump’s withdrawal did not undermine the morale of other countries. In December, the Council of Europe managed to get Poland to leave its reticence behind and increase the reduction of European emissions from 40 to 55% by 2030. This decision is a turning point that aims to put the Union at the forefront of climate leadership – for which China, Japan, Korea, the United Kingdom, and Biden’s United States are also competing – and pave the way for it to become the first continent to achieve carbon neutrality. Moreover, the EU 1.8 trillion euros budget for the recovery plan represents a promise that industrial and social transformation can be accelerated, in terms of emissions reduction. In this way, the EU wants to achieve its objectives in a collective and solidary-based way, and serve as an example for the rest of the world.

Moreover, the 2020 crisis has fostered the expansion of clean technologies that, without a doubt, will be favored by the commitment to Green Recovery. According to the International Energy Agency, renewable energies account for 90% of new installations this year, partly because their prices are increasingly competitive in most countries. The bet for a green economy makes a dent in fossil fuels, whose prices have collapsed, precipitated by the halt in mobility and transport during the pandemic.

Lost opportunities

The EU’s commitment to reduce emissions is a step in the right direction to achieve the objectives of the Paris Agreement. Even so, the road ahead is arduous and some consider that it has failed on some key issues. For Ban Ki-moon, former UN Secretary-General, much precious time has been wasted: “Five years after the agreement was adopted, amidst great expectations and with the commitment of world leaders, not enough has been done,” said Ki-moon to The Guardian. In fact, available data on carbon emissions back his argument.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in 2019 emissions exceeded those of 2015 by five billion tons. In addition, despite the lockdowns caused by the covid-19 fostered a slight decrease in pollution levels worldwide, the UNEP warns that, if global temperature increase is to be kept below 1.5 degrees, it is necessary to reduce the production and use of fossil fuels by 6% in the next 9 years. However, most countries plan a 2% increase by 2030.

But that’s not all. Fire seasons start earlier and every year an area of forest equivalent to the UK disappears. The ocean is slowly losing its capacity to absorb CO2, the poles are melting and planetary temperatures are already one degree above pre-industrial times. 2020 was officially the hottest year on record.

Complying with the Paris Agreement is increasingly necessary. The way out of the current crisis, as the EU has been saying for months, must be green. This decade is decisive because as António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, reminds us, “human beings are at war with nature and making peace with it is the task that will define the 21st century. It must be the top priority for everyone, everywhere”.


This article was originally published in Ethic Magazine and translated from it. Some events were updated to the date of publication. Read the original.

Photography credit – Cover: Arnaud Bouissour via Ethic Magazine