On December 12, 2015, the world had a major reason to rejoice. It was the penultimate day of COP21, a 14-day summit in Paris that scrutinized climate change from just about every angle the diplomats could think of. The summit’s 25,000 delegates included everyone from youth representatives to heads of state, and they hailed from 195 countries.

Although a major terrorist attack had rocked Paris two weeks before the summit began, the delegates were excited. By day, they discussed the effects of climate change and negotiated terms that would slow it down. By night, they gazed at trees projected onto the Eiffel Tower, downloading an app to control the projections with their heartbeats. For every virtual tree adorning the famous monument, the 1 Heart 1 Tree project pledged to plant a real tree in a deforested area.

The entire world watched the delegates’ every move. Everyone wanted to know how they would save the planet, what sort of impact they would make.

So, on the evening of December 12, millions of people were overjoyed when the summit president, Laurent Fabius, tapped his green gavel and announced that the United Nations had reached a landmark accord — the Paris Agreement. The auditorium burst into cheers, and the announcement immediately made its way into newsrooms, homes, schools, and offices around the world.

U.S. President Barack Obama said that the agreement was “the best chance we have to save the one planet we’ve got.” Ban Ki-Moon, U.N. Secretary General, tweeted that it was “a monumental triumph for people and our planet.”

The agreement’s objective was clear: “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.” Ideally, the agreement stated, the worldwide temperature would rise no more than 1.5°C.

In layman’s terms, the goal was to work together and take actions that would hold global warming to the lowest possible temperature increase. Everyone recognized that human activity had warmed up the planet since the Industrial Revolution, but they hoped to limit the damage.

The Paris Agreement is now three years old, and since its introduction, the world has heard both good and bad news on the front of climate change. So, what exactly has happened since 2015?

November 4, 2016 — The Paris Agreement enters into force

A little less than a year after the summit ended, the agreement officially entered into force. It had taken several months, but finally, the threshold number of parties had formally ratified it. The Paris Agreement was a U.N. treaty.

Along with ratifying the agreement, each party had to submit “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs), or emission benchmarks. For example, Canada pledged that its 2030 emissions would be 30 percent lower than its 2005 levels. The country provided a specific plan — complete with statistics, graphs, and other information — to outline how it would achieve that goal.

Under the agreement, each party is required to periodically update its NDCs. Ideally, the NDCs would become increasingly stringent over time, ensuring a global decrease in greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, not every nation is equally equipped to deal with climate change. With developing countries still industrializing, they can’t curb their greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as other parties can, so the agreement states that developed nations should provide them with technological and financial assistance. However, the wording is fairly vague, and the writers gloss over important subjects like sustainable development, food production, and efforts to eradicate poverty. Although the agreement is clearly trying to be fair toward developing nations, the lack of specifics leaves a lot of room for open interpretation.

Again, it’s important to note that even though all parties have agreed to contribute to a global objective (keeping the worldwide temperature increase below a maximum of 2°C), each signatory is responsible for its own action plan. The U.N. can’t really enforce sanctions against countries that don’t comply, a weakness that critics have pointed out since the agreement’s introduction. And, unfortunately, very few countries are living up to the promises they made under the Agreement.

A forest of coniferous trees in Oregon.June 1, 2017 — Donald Trump announces that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris Agreement

In June 2017, newly elected U.S. President Donald Trump dealt a devastating blow to the Paris Agreement. He announced that the U.S. would exit the agreement and immediately “cease all implementation.” The news was disheartening, especially since the U.S. accounts for a huge percentage of greenhouse gas emissions. (While China currently leads the world in annual emissions, the U.S. has contributed the largest overall share of atmospheric carbon dioxide.)

Trump’s move demonstrated his unwillingness to shoulder responsibility for his country’s massive carbon footprint, as well as his refusal to acknowledge that the U.S. had committed to its own NDCs. Fact-checkers called many of his claims into question, and world leaders rebuked his decision.

Although the announcement was disappointing, there was a silver lining: the withdrawal process takes longer than Trump seemed to understand. The U.S. cannot fully withdraw from the Paris Agreement until November 4, 2020 at the earliest, likely giving the ultimate say to the winner of the 2020 presidential election.

Since Trump made his disheartening announcement, thousands of American states, counties, cities, universities, tribal nations, cultural institutions, health care organizations, and faith groups have promised to fight climate change. Those groups now belong to We Are Still In, a coalition that “continue[s] to support climate action to meet the Paris Agreement.” Many groups have even submitted online versions of their Climate Action Contributions. Meanwhile, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and current California governor Jerry Brown have joined forces to launch America’s Pledge, an initiative to collect and publish data on non-national climate action.

If nothing else, it’s encouraging to see that many American groups and individuals are still changing their habits and doing their part to combat climate change — despite the actions of their head of state.

A coral reef, which will be under serious threat if the standards of the Paris Agreement are not met.October 8, 2018 — The IPCC publishes a dire report on climate change

Earlier this fall, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (another body of the U.N.) came forward with new findings on the race to curb global warming.

According to their report, limiting the global temperature increase to even 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels would require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” Even if we succeeded, the planet would still experience severe consequences — including sea level rise, coral reef decline of 70 to 90 percent, and an Arctic Ocean free of sea ice at least one summer per 100 years.

To clarify, 1.5°C might not sound much lower than 2°C, but the half-degree difference would lead to dramatically disparate results. At 2°C, the world’s oceans would rise an additional four inches (10 centimeters) by 2100, and the planet would lose more than 99 percent of its coral reefs. Further, the IPCC projects that sea ice would completely disappear from the Arctic Ocean at least once per decade, rather than once per century.

Currently, the global average temperature is about 1°C higher than it was before the Industrial Age began. 2016 was the hottest year ever recorded, followed by 2015 and 2017, respectively, and 2018 is on track to become the fourth-hottest. This decade has been marked by hurricanes, coral bleaching, wildfires, heat waves, and droughts — events that have left thousands of deaths in their wake.

As climate change continues, these disasters will only intensify.

Even since the IPCC report came out, additional groups have published equally urgent findings. In late November, the U.S. government reported that climate change could cost the nation hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century. And in early December, the Global Carbon Project said that greenhouse gas emissions increased significantly in 2018. They compared the acceleration to a “speeding freight train.”

The reports are alarming, but we shouldn’t lose hope, and we definitely shouldn’t give up. In an October press release, IPCC leader Valerie Masson-Delmotte said that some of the actions needed to limit global warming are already in place, although those efforts would need to pick up if we want to reach the 1.5°C goal. Additionally, Jim Skea, another IPCC representative, said that limiting the increase to 1.5°C is still scientifically possible, but similarly noted that it would require sweeping change.

Simply put, we need to buckle down and get to work.

A turquoise-blue alpine lake in Italy.December 12, 2018 — The Paris Agreement turns three, and COP24 nears its end

It’s been exactly three years since the triumphant announcement of the Paris Agreement. So much has happened since then, but worldwide progress often feels frustratingly (or rather, frighteningly) slow.

In recent weeks, the gilets jaunes — a group of safety-vest-clad protesters angered by perceived elitism in France — have made it clear that they oppose carbon taxes and high gas prices. Their movement quickly turned violent, leaving behind torched cars, broken windows, and a defaced Arc de Triomphe. The damage was a stark contrast to the sense of hope at COP21, when delegates planted virtual trees on the Eiffel Tower.

It’s now clear that the Paris Agreement may not be enough to save us, although IPCC leader Hans-Otto Pörtner has said that “every extra bit of warming matters.” (And we at Passion Passport would add that every prevented bit of warming matters just as much.)

At the ongoing COP24 summit in Katowice, Poland, many nations (both developing and developed) have shared updates on their climate actions. The delegates are working hard to adopt implementation guidelines for the Paris Agreement, reminding the world that they do care about climate change and do want to do something about it.

As ordinary people, we can no longer afford to be indifferent or complacent about this subject, even though it’s easy to blame climate change on big businesses, national governments, and the fossil fuel industry. They have certainly played a huge role — but if you’ve ever used electricity or gotten into a car, you’ve had an impact too, however small it was.

Now is the time to be proactive, not point fingers.

We can do our part by reducing our carbon footprints, encouraging family and friends to do the same, supporting environmentally conscious businesses, and writing letters to our representatives. We can transition to vegetarian or vegan lifestyles, turn down our air conditioners and heaters, switch to renewable forms of energy, use public transportation, and buy locally made products. Every little change matters, and our collective efforts add up to make a huge impact.

We can save our planet, and we can save millions of human lives — but only if we act now and work together. There’s no time to waste.

“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
— Jane Goodall

One of the most important steps in taking individual climate action is believing that your choices matter. Let us know the changes you plan to make, and share your eco-friendly tips in the comments below.

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Whitney Brown
Whitney Brown is a recent journalism graduate and travel writer based in Utah. She has lived in France and Ireland, and she's always planning her next big adventure. In addition to her passion for travel, Whitney loves archaeology, photography and floral design.