Advantages and Disadvantages of the Paris Agreement’s Legal Structure

By Student Delegate Fredrick Ole Ikayo 

When parties adopted the Paris Agreement in 2015, they agreed that certain provisions carry more legal force than others. These provisions fall into three categories: hard law, soft law, and provisions that show an understanding of the parties. The hard law provisions are framed in mandatory terms—those which use the word “shall.” Soft law provisions use discretionary or qualifying language, or are structured in advisory terms—those which use the word “should” or “encourage.” An example of a provision that merely conveys an understanding of the parties is in Article 7 on adaptation: “Parties recognize that adaptation is a global challenge faced by all.”

Despite the variable legal character of the Paris Agreement provisions, the actions of parties under the Agreement must be clearly aligned with curbinggreenhouse gases, and the bottom-up architecture is meant to ensure that the developmental stages of countries are taken into account and national sovereignty is upheld.  This bottom-up approach has been a major point of disagreement among stakeholders evaluating the merits of the Agreement. Some see the Paris Agreement in a negative light, believing its bottom-up approach to be too weak, while others see it most positively, recognizing that it shows the political will of parties and addresses climate change globally like no other agreement before.

Those who believe the Paris Agreement and its bottom-up approach are net positives tend to reference three primary arguments. Firstly, most parties involved—critics and proponents alike— agree that the Paris Agreement was a major symbolic success. The Paris Agreement has garnered international support since the agreement came to force. 194  out of 198 parties to the UNFCCC are parties to the Paris Agreement.[1] This collective action demonstrates that tackling climate change is a global concern, and that at the very least, a majority of the countries take climate change seriously.

Secondly, in Article 4 the Paris Agreementspecifies that developed countries should take the lead in reducing global emissions and provide support for developing country parties. This in turn recognizes the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, which gives rise to profound equity questions raised by the climate change challenge.[2] However, parties divided along the “developed” and “developing” line tend to differ in their interpretation of what “accountability” actually means. Many developing countries focus on the term “responsibilities” in tandem with accountability, stating big emitters have greater responsibility to contribute to fixing climate change based on historical emissions. Conversely, developed countries, like the United States, focus on “capabilities,” providing a basis for ratcheting up responsibilities as a country gains technological and financial capabilities.  While developed countries concede they have some degree of accountability toward reducing climate change emissions, they are less willing to take on the responsibilities pointed to by developing countries.[3]

Lastly, the Agreement has had a positive impact because it provides flexibility for each country to create a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) constituting individualized plans to address emissions. Progression is measured by national contributions as provided for under Article 4.2 and 4.3 of the Paris Agreement. Though the individualized plans are non-binding, they represent how each country takes action in addressing climate change.

Not everyone believes the Paris Agreement has been such a marked success. Critics  call it a symbolic victory and little else: firstly, the agreement contains discretionary provisions, which in turn creates non-binding legal obligations. For example, Article 4.4 provides that“Developing country Parties should continue enhancing their mitigation efforts, and are encouraged to move overtime towards economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets in the light of different national circumstances.” Critics point to this as a significant flaw in the Agreement’s overall objective: if parties to the Paris Agreement do not abide by their pledges, there are no enforcement mechanisms to hold parties accountable, thus leading to no real change.

Secondly, current global policies and pledges do not put countries anywhere near the pathway that would hold global temperatures to no more than 1.5 degrees warming above  pre-industrial levels as provided for under Article 2.1(a). The Paris Agreement stresses the importance of addressing climate change, but it gives unrealistic targets that do more to bow to global economies than turn the tide of climate change.

Thirdly, a change in government may weaken or strengthen the global fight against climate change, making countries’ participation in the agreement volatile. For example, former U.S. President Trump announced in 2017 that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Agreement.[4] However, it was not until November 4, 2020, that the withdrawal came into force. Conversely, current U.S. President Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement, stressing that climate change was a priority for his administration.[5]

Overall, the Paris agreement establishes a common goal to limit global warming well below 2 andpreferably 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. However, achieving this goal will require ambitious national action, along with non-state and subnational players pressing for and contributing to appropriate climate action. Despite its global acceptance, the effects of climate change are imminent and catastrophic. For instance, Pakistan’s recent floods are linked to climate change.[6] The Paris Agreement alone won’t solve climate change, but accountability domestically and internationally through effective legislation, implementation, ratcheting up national ambitions, and performance on pledged commitments on climate and adaptation finance by developed countries can put us on a better pathway to limit the most catastrophic effects of climate change.


[1] United Nations Climate Change, Paris Agreement — Status of Ratification (Sept. 27, 2022),

[2] Article 2.2 of the Paris Agreement.

[3] For an in-depth discussion, see Lavanya Rajamani & Emmanuel Guerin, ‘Central Concepts in the Paris Agreement and How They Evolved’, in Daniel Klein et al.The Paris Climate Agreement: Analysis and Commentary (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2017); Lavanya Rajamani, Guiding Principles and General Obligations (Article 2.2 and Article 3)’, in Klein et al.; see also Christina Voigt & Felipe Ferriera, ‘Differentiation in the Paris Agreement’, 6 Climate Law Special Issue, 58–74 (2016).

[4] Lisa Friedman, Trump Serves Notice to Quit Paris Climate Agreement, N.Y. Times, (Nov. 4, 2019),

[5] Elian Peltier & Somini Sengupta, U.S Formally Rejoins the Paris Climate Accord, N.Y. Times, (Feb. 19, 2021),

[6] Raymond Zhong, In a First Study of Pakistan’s Floods, Scientists See Climate Change at Work, N.Y. Times, (Sept. 15, 2022),


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