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How the Paris Agreement Can Help Us Get to a Low-Carbon Global Economy

The following analysis is from Volume 3, Special Issue “Climate Change, Security, and Conflict” of the Peace Science Digest

Citation: Falkner, R. (2016). The Paris Agreement and the new logic of international climate politics. International Affairs, 92(5), 1107-1125.

In December 2015, 195 countries and the European Union (EU) adopted the Paris Agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), committing the international community to limiting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions such that global temperatures rise no more than 2 (or even 1.5) degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This is an extraordinarily ambitious goal that will require nothing short of the transformation of the global economy—but it is also an absolutely necessary one, scientists agree, if the world is to avoid global environmental catastrophe. The Paris Agreement was a real achievement considering previous challenges associated with implementing the earlier Kyoto Protocol and attempts to negotiate its successor. With these in mind, the author considers whether and how the Paris Agreement a) has broken through the “gridlock” of previous climate negotiations and b) might succeed at “bringing global GHG emissions under control.”

Climate change presents a particularly thorny political challenge for international cooperation due to a few factors: the centrality of carbon to industrialization and the contemporary global economy; the way de-carbonizing the economy requires immediate costs in exchange for long-term gains; the uneven effects of projected environmental changes across countries and also uncertainty about these effects; basic collective action problems at the international level; and the question of historical versus current responsibility for GHG emissions in relation to developed and developing countries. The Kyoto Protocol (adopted in 1997) attempted to address these challenges through a “top-down,” legally binding treaty structure, with a clear distinction between so-called “Annex 1” (developed) and “non-Annex 1” (developing) countries, where emission targets only applied to the former—characteristics the author credits with Kyoto’s ultimate lack of success, as key countries felt they were forced to shoulder too much of the burden, and rising emissions in developing countries weren’t adequately addressed. The Paris Agreement’s most significant departure from the Kyoto Protocol was the shift from top-down, legally binding emissions targets to bottom-up, voluntary pledges on emission cuts in the form of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). This move opened the way for reluctant parties (including those developing countries with growing emissions) to get on board with the climate agreement—and for the climate agreement to articulate more ambitious goals, like reaching “net zero” GHG emissions globally between 2050 and 2100. Although not legally obliged to comply with their NDCs, countries—with no distinction between developed and developing—are legally obliged to report on progress towards their NDCs during regularly scheduled reviews and to re-submit NDCs every five years, presumably “ratcheting” up their ambition each time. Finally, adaptation measures are also to be assessed under a five-year review system, and developed countries agreed to at least $100 billion each year in climate funding to developing countries after 2025.

Collective action problems: situations where the action that would be in the best interest of the collective (for instance, a massive global reduction of GHG emissions to mitigate climate change) conflicts with the self-interest of individual actors (for instance, how one country’s reduction of GHG emissions can involve significant short-term economic costs), making action in the common interest more difficult. There is an incentive in such situations for individual actors to “free-ride,” enabling them to reap the benefits of others’ cooperative actions while not engaging in these (individually costly) actions themselves. Collective action problems are especially prominent at the global level where there is no central, overarching authority to ensure the compliance of individual actors, so countries often lack adequate reassurance that other countries will follow through which their commitments in the common interest.

All things considered, the author sees the Paris Agreement as “a more realistic path” to global climate action in that it takes seriously the realities of international politics and removes previous barriers to agreement. It does so in part by acknowledging—through the focus on NDCs—the centrality of domestic politics to climate action and by supporting climate action at sub-national, transnational, and national levels, especially on the part of non-state (including business) actors. But, importantly, the author argues that the strength of the Paris Agreement lies in the way it embeds these domestically determined commitments in an international system of accountability, combining “bottom-up” and “top-down” approaches and making NDCs “the subject of international policy deliberation and coordination” considering global climate realities.

Key to the Paris Agreement’s success will be the effective use of its review mechanism to pressure countries to ratchet up and comply with NDCs, in one of two ways: 1) peer pressure among countries, and 2) naming and shaming by both domestic and transnational civil society. In addition, the Paris Agreement’s success also hinges on its effects on global markets, as business decisions are a major factor in emissions levels. The Paris Agreement influences corporations’ decisions by creating greater certainty for green investments, reiterating support for carbon markets, and innovating forms of “orchestration” that capitalize on private forms of governance.

In short, the author argues that the Paris Agreement “provides a more realistic approach” to global climate action. To facilitate the world’s necessary “transition towards a low-carbon global economy,” its innovative hybrid structure—especially its “new logic of ‘pledge and review’ and the subsequent ‘ratchet’”—will require that climate-leader countries and domestic and global civil society mobilize the pressure needed to enact ever more ambitious emissions targets.

Orchestration: “attempts by multilateral actors to steer the efforts of other state and non-state actors through soft power.” The Paris Agreement provides multiple avenues for this form of governance as opposed to more traditional top-down regulation.

Kuyper, J.W.; Linnér, B.-O.; Schroeder, H. (2018). Non-state actors in hybrid global climate governance: justice, legitimacy, and effectiveness in a post-Paris era. WIREs Climate Change, 9, 1-18.

Contemporary Relevance:

This past December in Poland, climate negotiators from around the world finalized an agreement on the so-called “rulebook” for the 2015 Paris Agreement. This rulebook contains a uniform set of measurements for countries to use to track their own (and others’) greenhouse gas emissions, so that assessments can be made about whether and how well each country is complying with its emission targets. As dry and technical as it sounds, this step is key to the functioning of the Paris Agreement—and of its review mechanism, in particular. A common yardstick provides the means for fellow countries and non-state actors alike to obtain the information they need to exert pressure on countries who may be falling short of their commitments to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

This “win” is sorely needed in light of recent discouraging developments related to climate change. First, the most significant development since the adoption of the Paris Agreement was of course the election of a climate denier to the U.S. presidency in late 2016 and his subsequent announcement that the U.S. would withdraw from the Agreement. Although this withdrawal cannot officially transpire until late 2020, the announcement itself has necessarily influenced the way other countries view their commitments under the Paris Agreement. It has also meant that climate negotiations have lost the U.S. leadership they once had under the Obama administration. Following in Trump’s wake, Jair Bolsonaro was recently elected president of Brazil and threatens to take that country out of the Paris Agreement and to open up vast swaths of the Amazon Rainforest to development. Second, the Trump administration is doing its best to undo progress in terms of U.S. domestic policy by dismantling Obama-era clean air rules that were going to affect the operation of coal plants and bring the U.S. closer to its commitments under the Paris Agreement. Third, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—a group of nearly one hundred climate scientists from around the world—released a report this past October alerting the world of the catastrophic events that would likely transpire as soon as 2040 if global greenhouse gas emissions continue on their current trajectory, as well as the severe economic costs countries would have to pay with this level of warming. Finally, just as the recent climate talks in Poland were convening, the Global Climate Project reported that global greenhouse gas emissions for 2018 were set to rise to an all-time high after plateauing in recent years—essentially moving the world in the opposite direction of what is urgently needed to avert climate crisis.

Talking Points:

  • The Paris Agreement’s most significant departure from the Kyoto Protocol was the shift from top-down, legally binding emissions targets to bottom-up, voluntary pledges on emission cuts, opening the way for reluctant parties to get on board and for the climate agreement to articulate more ambitious goals.
  • The Paris Agreement represents a more “realistic” approach to global climate action in that it takes seriously the realities of international politics and overcomes previous barriers to agreement by acknowledging the centrality of domestic politics to climate action and supporting growth in climate action at various levels.
  • There are two ways in which the Paris Agreement’s review mechanism will be capable of pressuring countries to ratchet up and comply with their emissions targets: 1) peer pressure among countries, and 2) naming and shaming by both domestic and transnational civil society.
  • The world’s “transition towards a low-carbon global economy” will require that climate-leader countries and domestic and global civil society mobilize the pressure needed to enact ever more ambitious emissions targets under the Paris Agreement.

Practical Implications:

As discouraging as the news is on climate change—especially at the official, governmental level—this and other research (see Kuyper et al. under Continued Reading) on the Paris Agreement has shown that we need not invest all our hope (and despair) in governmental-level actors and global agreements. Yes, the domestic policies of national governments and the creation of global agreements are both critical—especially to address collective action problems and to assure countries of reciprocity at the global level—but perhaps just as critical are actions taken by non-state actors: non-governmental organizations, social movements, businesses, local governments, and so on. In peacemaking, for example, a multi-track diplomacy framework “is a conceptual way to view the process of international peacemaking as a living system. It looks at the web of interconnected activities, individuals, institutions, and communities that operate together for a common goal: a world at peace.”[1] Likewise, a similar “systems approach” to climate action encouraged by the Paris Agreement has the potential to engage actors at all levels and in all sectors to strengthen the world’s climate change mitigation efforts. As Kuyper et al. argue, non-state actors play dual roles under the Paris framework: as “watchdogs” with regards to official climate action by countries, holding them accountable to their NDCs and pressuring them to ratchet up these commitments, but also as “governing partners” through “orchestration” efforts whereby they take their own actions on climate change and register these in the Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action (NAZCA) platform.

In other words, there is still much within the power of everyday citizens who wish to take collective action to mitigate climate change, regardless of who stands at the helm of certain powerful countries. We make up domestic and global civil society, and we therefore are those who must make climate change action a priority for our elected representatives. We are the ones who will nonviolently take to the streets to lay bare any discrepancies that form between our own countries’ commitments under the Paris Agreement and their actual greenhouse gas emissions. We are the ones who, as consumers, can pressure companies to wean themselves off fossil fuels and pressure retirement funds to divest from fossil fuels. We are the ones who can initiate and support local legislation to cut greenhouse gas emissions—and then who can register these actions on the NAZCA platform to help build climate action momentum. The Paris Agreement provides an excellent framework for supporting these citizen-led actions so that they do not exist in isolation but rather build on one another to bring needed momentum to global climate action—and ultimately greater security to people around the world.

Continued Reading:



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