What you need to know about the Paris Agreement and greenhouse gases

The United States emits greenhouse gases at a rate greater than any nation on Earth except China. Although much smaller in population — the US has just over 332 million while China has nearly 1.4 billion — the US emits greenhouse gases at a rate roughly half of that of the much larger nation. (For a chart of the 10 world’s most populous nations, see my post, Social sustainability: A glance at our global makeup)

But just what are greenhouse gases? These gases trap heat in the atmosphere, acting much like a warm blanket wrapped around the Earth. Water vapor is the most prevalent. In and of itself, water vapor does what it’s supposed to: it traps enough heat at the Earth’s surface to render it livable to humans and other life forms. However, climate scientists emphasize the importance of other greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide as the most prevalent, in warming the planet more quickly than ever before. And that warming of the planet means more water vapor is formed, further contributing to global warming.

Other gases warming the planet include:

  • Carbon dioxide. Comes from burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and reduced soil quality. Carbon dioxide emissions have increased about 90% since 1970.
  • Methane. It’s released through agricultural actions, waste management, and energy expenditure.
  • Nitrous oxide. The main contributors are agricultural activities and the burning of fossil fuels.
  • Fluorinated gases. These gases come from refrigerant use, industrial processes, and consumer use of manufactured goods.

So, where do these emissions come from? Globally, the economic sectors emitting the most greenhouse gases according to 2010 data reported by the US EPA are shown in the chart below:

Where do our emissions come from?

The Paris Agreement (aka climate accord) was created to cut back on global gas emissions. Conceived during A United Nations Convention, it was adopted in December 2015. The international pact aims to limit greenhouse gas emissions so that there is no more than a 2 degree Celsius global temperature rise above pre-industrial levels. (By pre-industrial, the years of reference run between 1850 and 1900.) Nearly every nation on the planet has signed the agreement — 197 countries. Iran, Iraq, and Turkey have not.

The United States recently rejoined the agreement. In one of the first actions taken after his inauguration, President Joe Biden returned the U.S. to the alliance of countries actively engaged in the agreement. His action reverses the Trump administration’s removal of the U.S. from the multinational accord.

Proposed actions

Although it’s up to individual nations to set their own benchmarks, the achieving the goals of the Paris accord hinges on several obligations overall:

Quote from Our Common Future

The tie: the Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goal 13

That the Paris Agreement succeeds is vital to the attainment of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. The SDGs, also known as Global Goals, attempt to establish and help implement measures to meet sustainability standards worldwide. The UN adopted the SDGs in 2015 as a “universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere.”

Sustainable Development Goal 13 directly aligns with the accord: “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.” With greenhouse gas emissions increasing by 50% from 1990, we must take immediate action. Damage to the environment and ecosystems is causing great harm. Property damage from climate change runs into the many billions of dollars.

Reaching this goal is more likely if rich countries invest in developing nations so they can live with climate change and create greener communities. The intent of SDG 13 is to cap the increase in global warming at 2 degrees Celsius. And that requires immediate action from all nations.

Are the Paris Agreement and SDGs attainable by 2030?

While they are ambitious, both the Paris Agreement and SDGs are vital to achieving a decent standard of living for people living now and in the future. But are they achievable by the UN’s target year of 2030? Widespread opinion weighs in with a resounding no. And a frequent reason given for the delay in progress toward the goal is the coronavirus pandemic, although that’s not the only impediment — not by a long shot.

In his forward to the UN’s own Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020,  Secretary-General Antonio Guterres admitted that even before the pandemic, “ … we were not on track to meet the Goals by 2030.”

For SDG 13 to be achieved, greenhouse gas emissions must fall 7.6% every year and should have begun with 2020, according to the report. “The world is way off track to meet this target at the current level of nationally determined contributions,” the report states, adding that while global greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries show a decline of 6.5% between 2000–2018, the emissions of developing countries are up 43.2% from 2000 to 2013.

The writer of the article, "Time to revise the Sustainable Development Goals" argues that the SDGs should be reworked to adapt to the changed global picture. The writer is optimistic that this can happen. “The pandemic is radically altering economic and social realities,” it reads. “It shows that radical action can be taken to tackle poverty and inequality, health, education, biodiversity and climate.”

How you can help

Radical action or no, what can you do to help combat the climate crisis? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Calculate your carbon footprint and work at improving it.
  • Install solar panels to supplement electric use. • Drive an electric vehicle or use public transportation.
  • Buy products from local producers.
  • Plant trees since they absorb carbon dioxide.

As we’ve seen from the recent fires, flooding, and the shrinking of glaciers and polar ice caps, the planet really is getting hotter. We have an urgent need to act. To paraphrase an old Chinese proverb: The best time to take action was yesterday. The second-best time is now.


--- Carbon Footprint Calculator. US Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved on 2021 July 27. https://www3.epa.gov/carbon-footprint-calculator/

--- Climate Change Indicators: Atmospheric Concentrations of Greenhouse Gases. US Environmental Protection Agency. https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/climate-change-indicators-atmospheric-concentrations-greenhouse-gases

--- Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved 2021 July 23. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emissions-data

--- Overview of Greenhouse Gases. US Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved 2021 July 27. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/overview-greenhouse-gases

--- The Sustainable Development Agenda: 17 Goals for People, for Planet. Retrieved 2021 July 27. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/development-agenda/

--- The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020. The United Nations. PDF retrieved 2021 July 23. https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2020

--- Time to revise the Sustainable Development Goals. Nature. 2020 July 14. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02002-3

--- U.S. Census Bureau Current Population. 2021 July 24. Retrieved on 2021 July 24. https://www.census.gov/popclock/print.php?component=counter

--- What is the Paris Agreement? NRDC (National Resources Defense Council). Retrieved 2021 July 20. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/paris-climate-agreement-everything-you-need-know#:~:text=The%20Paris%20Agreement%20is%20a,change%20and%20its%20negative%20impacts.&text=The%20agreement%20includes%20commitments%20from,strengthen%20those%20commitments%20over%20time.

Briggs, Helen. What is the Paris climate agreement and why did the US rejoin? BBC News. Retrieved 2021 July 20. https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-35073297

Denchak, Melissa. Paris Climate Agreement: Everything You Need to Know. NRDC (National Resources Defense Council). 2021 February 19. Retrieved 2021 July 23. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/paris-climate-agreement-everything-you-need-know

Dzebo, A., Janetschek, H., Brandi, C. and Iacobuta, G. (2019). Connections between the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda: the case for policy coherence. SEI, Stockholm Environment Institute. 2019 September 4. Retrieved 2021 July 21. https://www.sei.org/publications/connections-between-the-paris-agreement-and-the-2030-agenda/

Herring, David. What can we do to stop global warming? NOAA, Climate.gov. 2020 October 29. Retrieved 2021 July 27. https://www.climate.gov/news-features/climate-qa/what-can-we-do-slow-or-stop-global-warming

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