The Truth About Climate Change

1. Was the Paris Conference on climate change successful?

The Paris Conference was indeed successful. Since the 1992 Climate Change Convention, the adoption of the Paris Agreement commits all countries ‘to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change’1.

The Paris Agreement is a political agreement. It includes important elements never before agreed under the Climate Change Convention: the collective action by all countries to reduce GHG emissions and to adapt to the changing climate. It also includes the commitment by developed countries to jointly mobilize US$100 billion a year by 2020 to assist developing countries reduce GHG emissions and adapt to the changing climate.

Its predecessor, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and its 2012 amendment, established GHG emission reduction targets for industrialized countries 2. In contrast, the Paris Agreement establishes a ‘pledge and review’ system, based on pledges submitted by all countries –the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) —to be reviewed every five years. These pledges, however, are not legally binding.


2. What is the Paris Agreement’s goal?

The goal of the Paris Agreement 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’3. This is because a 2ºC increase in global average temperature was considered as the upper limit beyond which the risks and negative impacts of the changing climate are expected to increase rapidly4.

To achieve its goal, the Paris Agreement set a long-term GHG emission reduction target –to achieve a ‘balance between anthropogenic (or man-made) emissions by sources and removals by sinks (the oceans, trees and plants) of GHGs in the second half of the century’5. This is in line with the IPCC’s most recent analysis, the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), which concluded that net zero GHG emissions will be required to stay below 2ºC well before 21006. Because significant emission reductions would be required to achieve its goal and long-term target, the Paris Agreement recognizes that a maximum level (or peak) should be reached ‘as soon as possible’. However, it acknowledges that ‘peaking will take longer for developing countries’7.

The IPCC concluded that middle income countries, where more than 70 percent of the world population live8, are currently responsible for 54 percent of global GHG emissions9. The top ten largest emitters, in descending order of total emission levels, are China, the United States, the European Union, India, Russia, Indonesia, Brazil, Japan, Canada and Mexico10. Of the ten, five –China, India, Indonesia, Brazil and Mexico— are middle income countries. The others are high-income countries, where 18 percent of the world population live11 and have the highest per capita emissions.

Allowing developing countries to take more time to reduce GHG emissions may seem as a fair outcome of the Paris Agreement for some. However, it may enable some developing countries, currently categorized as middle income countries by the IPCC, to continue delaying climate action.

In addition, international aviation and shipping were not included in the Paris Agreement, thus also allowing these sectors to postpone action to reduce emissions. International travel and trade currently accounts for two percent of global GHG emissions12.

3. Why has it been so difficult to take climate action?

Only industrialized countries were required to reduce GHG emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. Although some industrialized countries actually met the emission reduction targets set by the Kyoto Protocol, these efforts were offset by increasing emissions by most countries, industrialized and developing.

In addition, political and sectoral interests have contributed to delay collective efforts to address climate change. The changes required to take decisive climate action may have been perceived by many as incompatible with economic development. Some incorrectly believe that economic development and growth can only be achieved in the business-as-usual way –by burning coal, oil and gas. The costs of implementing actions to reduce GHG emissions were considered as prohibitive compared to the costs of continuing to use fossil fuels. Also, pressure from sectors benefiting from the use of fossil fuels has also halted climate action.

As a result, and despite overwhelming scientific evidence, climate action has been delayed and global GHG emissions have continued to steadily increase –from 38 Gigatons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent (GtCO2-eq: unit to measure all GHGs combined) in 1990 to 49.5 GtCO2-eq in 201013. Currently, annual global GHG emissions are 54 GtCO2-eq14.

4. Are the current pledges by countries adequate to tackle climate change?

As part of the Paris Agreement, 162 pledges were submitted to the Climate Change Convention describing how each country intends to tackle climate change. These pledges cover 189 countries accounting for about 98 percent of global GHG emissions15.

Most of the INDCs include pledges on how countries plan to reduce GHG emissions and to adapt to climate change. Because for the first time most developing countries made these types of pledges, 83 percent of them are in part or entirely conditional to the provision of finance, technology and capacity-building, for their full implementation. 

Various research groups analyzed the collective impact of the INDCs16. These studies used different methodologies and criteria for their assessment17. Some studies, for example, include all unconditional and conditional INDCs, while others only include unconditional ones. Different assumptions were also used to harmonize the information included in the pledges submitted by countries, as well as to make projections for the rest of the century, beyond the 2030 timeframe of the INDCs. Thus, the conclusions from these studies on the collective impact of the INDCs vary.

All the studies agreed that the INDCs show a real increase in the commitment by countries to combat climate change. Collectively, pledges by countries to be undertaken between 2020 and 2030 contribute to lowering the global GHG emissions trajectory compared to the current path.  

The 2015 Pledges

See the climate pledges made before the adoption of the Paris Agreement.

Timeline of Climate Action

Before the Paris Agreement, only industrialized countries were required to reduce GHG emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. See the timeline of climate action and which countries took action to reduce GHG emissions in 2008-2012 and 2013-2020 –the first and second Kyoto Protocol commitment periods.

Current pledges, however, are far from sufficient to put the world on a pathway to meet the 2ºC target18.

To stay below 2ºC, global GHG emissions should be reduced by 22 percent from current levels (of 54 GtCO2-eq) to reach 42 GtCO2-eq in 2030, as concluded by the IPCC and the UNEP Emissions Gap assessment19. However, if only unconditional pledges are implemented, global GHG emissions are expected to increase by six percent in 2030, reaching 56 GtCO2-eq (range 54-59). If unconditional and conditional pledges are fully implemented, global GHG emissions will remain at about the current level of 54 GtCO2-eq (range 52-57)20. The difference between the projected level of global GHG emissions in 2030 and what they should be to stay below 2ºC, or the emissions gap, is 14 GtCO2-eq (range 12-17)21, or 33 percent above the 2ºC pathway. This emissions gap is comparable to the annual emissions from the world’s energy production, which totaled 17 GtCO2-eq in 201022, to supply electricity, fuel and natural gas used by other sectors. As a reference, without the Paris Agreement pledges, global GHG emissions are projected to reach 65 GtCO2-eq (range 60-70)23 in 2030, or an increase of about 20 percent.

Moreover, the INDCs are legally non-binding pledges made at the international level. Pledges are subject to approval at the national level through policies, regulations and incentives for their implementation in each country. Thus, pledges may be changed, raising or reducing the overall GHG emission reduction targets.

5. Will a transition to renewable energy address climate change?

A transition to renewable energy for electricity generation is an important component to address climate change. However, a radical change in the way the world produces and uses energy (electricity, fuel and natural gas) is required.  

Currently, about 82 percent of the energy produced in the world is obtained by burning fossil fuels –31 percent oil, 29 percent coal and 22 percent natural gas24

Because energy is used by different sectors, the IPCC made a comprehensive analysis by sector to identify measures and policies to be implemented in the next 2-3 decades to transform the way energy is produced and used everywhere. Some examples include increasing the deployment of low-carbon energy for electricity generation25 (currently non-fossil fuel electricity generation is 30 percent –16 percent from hydropower, 5 percent from renewables and 11 percent from nuclear power26), increasing the energy efficiency in the industry sector27, promoting the conversion of vehicles to low-carbon fuels in the transport sector28 and including on-site renewable energy systems in existing and new buildings29. In addition, options were also assessed in the non-energy sector, including improving crop, water and livestock management and reducing deforestation in the agriculture, forestry and land use sector30.  

Several INDCs describe measures in various sectors, such as increasing the share of renewable energy, increasing energy efficiency, using fuel efficiency standards in the transport sector, improving crop and livestock production, establishing waste management and recycling programs and promoting the conservation and sustainable management of forests and reducing deforestation. More than half of the INDCs, however, only focus on measures in the energy sector, with some countries aiming at 100 percent renewable energy supply for the electricity sector31.

 Actions to reduce GHG emissions will have to be implemented in all sectors, and not just to transform the generation of electricity. Producing energy without burning fossil fuels (or decarbornizing the production of energy) will be critically important since world population is estimated to increase by 40 percent, to 10 billion by 205032, which in turn will double the demand for energy33, increase the demand for food, clean water, and other basic human needs.


Sources and references:

1. Paris Agreement, Article 2 (2015)
2. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol commits developed countries to reduce GHG emissions by at least five per cent below 1990 levels in the period 2008-2012. A second commitment period was agreed by the Protocol’s 2012 Doha Amendment, with emission reduction targets of at least 18 per cent below 1990 levels in the period 2013-2020.
3. Paris Agreement, Article 2 (2015)
4. United Nations Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases (1990); IPCC, Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), Synthesis Report (2014)
5. Paris Agreement, Article 4 (2015)
6. IPCC, AR5, WGI Summary for Policymakers (2013) and Synthesis Report (2014)
7. Paris Agreement, Article 4 (2015)
8 World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, United Nations Population Division (2015)
9. IPCC, AR5, WG III, Chapter 1 and Chapter 13 (2014); and Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR). European Commission, Joint Research Centre/PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (2014)
10. UNEP. The Emissions Gap Report 2015 (2015)
11. World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, United Nations Population Division (2015)
12. Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR). European Commission, Joint Research Centre/PBL
13. IPCC, AR5, Working Group (WG) III, Chapter 1 (2014)
14. UNEP. The Emissions Gap Report 2014 (2014) and Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR). European Commission, Joint Research Centre/PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency
15. Climate Action Tracker
16. Studies on INDCs were developed by Climate Action Tracker, Australian-German Climate and Energy College, Climate Interactive, Danish Energy Agency, European Commission Joint Research Centre, the International Energy Agency, London School of Economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MILES Project Consortium, PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, among others. The Synthesis Report on the aggregate effect of the INDCs by the Climate Change Convention (FCCC/CP/2015/7) and The Emissions Gap Report 2015 by UNEP summarize the research from these studies
17. World Resources Institute (2015):
18. UNEP. The Emissions Gap Report 2015 (2015)
19. IPCC, AR5, WG III, Chapter 6 (2014) and UNEP. The Emissions Gap Report 2015 (2015)
20. UNEP. The Emissions Gap Report 2015 (2015)
21. UNEP. The Emissions Gap Report 2015 (2015)
22. IPCC, AR5, WG III, Chapter 1 (2014)
23. UNEP. The Emissions Gap Report 2015 (2015)
24. Key World Energy Statistics, International Energy Agency (2015)
25. IPCC, AR5, WG III, Chapter 6 (2014)
26. Key World Energy Statistics, International Energy Agency (2014)
27. IPCC, AR5, WG III, Chapter 10 (2014)
28. IPCC, AR5, WG III, Chapter 8 (2014)
29. IPCC, AR5, WG III, Chapter 9 (2014)
30. IPCC, AR5, WG III, Chapter 11 (2014)
31. Synthesis report on the aggregate effect of the INDCs (FCCC/CP/2015/7) and UNEP. The Emissions Gap Report 2015 (2015)
32. World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, United Nations Population Division (2015)
33. IPCC, AR5, WG III, Chapter 7 (2014)

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