The Paris Agreement, adopted on December 12, marked a turning point for the fate of our planet: 196 countries agreed by consensus to create a thriving, clean economy fueled by innovation and low-emissions technologies, products, and services.

For the first time, we have a pathway to net-zero emissions. The Paris Agreement covers action in the short and medium term, and sets a long-term goal for bold, collective action for decades ahead. The long-term goal, which goes beyond political cycles and, indeed, beyond most of our lives, is crucial to the success of the Paris Agreement. 

Medium-term success depends on national climate commitments, also known as intended nationally determined contributions, or INDCs, which are designed to cover the period up to 2030. More than 180 nations submitted INDCs in the lead-up to COP21—an impressive and praiseworthy achievement, and one that cleared the way for an ambitious Paris Agreement. But the science is clear: Progress by 2030 through the INDCs is one step on the path to curbing global temperature rise to below 2°C before the end of the century, but it is not the final one.

If fully implemented, the INDCs will ensure that we will curb global temperatures from 4.8°C (the rise we could expect under a business-as-usual scenario), to 2.7°C. This projection remains above the 1.5 to 2°C that climate scientists have identified as the threshold to hold off catastrophic effects.

Now—not in 15 years—we need to ensure that we are planning for action beyond 2030.

And so, the Paris Agreement’s long-term goal defines the parameters needed for climate success through the end of the century. These five features provide a roadmap for government, business, and civil society to follow as we all seek to stay on track for a thriving, clean economy.

  1. Temperature Threshold: Article 2.1 says that we must curb temperatures below “2°C above pre-industrial levels and ... pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” This temperature goal is lower than the current projections based on INDCs, meaning that the Paris Agreement calls for increased ambition over time.  
  2. Peaking Emissions Goal: Article 4.1 mentions a desired mitigation end goal, proposing to “reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible ... so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.” This indicates a turning point in the pathway to reaching the 2°C temperature goal, when we “balance out” emissions through efforts like carbon sinks (such as planting trees) or technological breakthroughs. Practically speaking, this calls for net-zero emissions. Decarbonizing the economy through a net-zero emissions approach recognizes that carbon emissions may not be completely eliminated, since some of them occur naturally, through ocean release or decomposition of organic matter.
  3. Timeline: Article 4.1 also includes the timeline along which this goal ought to be achieved. In particular, the text proposes that this turning point be reached “as soon as possible,” and definitely “in the second half of the century.”  With this timeline, the Paris Agreement ensures at once that we act with urgency, but also with a view to long-term results.
  4. Sharing the Burden: Article 4.1 further suggests that the principle guiding us on the pathway to the long-term goal is “equity.” In other words, climate action approaches must also account for the fact that climate effects will be worse in countries and regions that have not emitted the lion’s share of greenhouse gas emissions since the Industrial Revolution, and that developing nations need support to transition to strong, low-carbon economies.
  5. Near-Zero Goal: Finally, the long-term goal is crucially defined by what climate science determines as the acceptable level of emissions to have a chance at remaining below 2°C of warming. According to the IPCC, emissions must reach “near zero or below by 2100.” This goal, importantly, is science-based. Even more importantly, this goal clearly leads us to a decarbonized economy, and includes “net-zero” as one way to reach near-zero emissions.

As we move from celebrating the historic adoption of the Paris Agreement to the work needed to implement it, all sectors should focus on their contributions to short-, medium-, and long-term climate actions, and on holding each other to these ambitious goals. The Paris Agreement has created a framework for effective, science-based, and long-lasting climate action. But it’s up to us to achieve it.