Paris—In the run-up to the Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention, a short humorous video, “Earth to Paris,” was widely viewed. It was a call to delegates for take serious action on climate change at the conference.
The Paris Agreement is being hailed as an historic breakthrough by political leaders, nongovernmental organizations, and the business community. It represents the first time since the Framework Convention on Climate Change was opened for signature in 1992 that all 196 parties have agreed to take actions to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The only prior agreement even remotely comparable to the Paris Agreement—the Kyoto Protocol—limited only developed country emissions.
Not only was there unanimous approval of this agreement—a remarkable feat in itself—but its overall goal is ambitious. Countries agreed to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels.” They also agreed to “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.” The parties thus increased somewhat the level of ambition from limiting warming to 2 °C, which had been the consensus objective.
They also agreed to “aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter.” That, too, is new.
And unlike Kyoto, this agreement puts primary responsibility for what happens in particular countries where it has always been—with the countries themselves. This is through the mechanism of nationally determined contributions (NDCs)—public commitments that nearly all countries made prior to Paris to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to some extent. The Paris agreement affirmed those agreements and made them central to the global climate change effort.
But what also sets the Paris Agreement apart—and will ultimately determine whether humanity averts or limits the worst effects of climate change—are processes that the agreement puts in place to periodically increase national ambition, assist countries in meeting their objectives, share information, and ensure methodological consistency in accounting for emissions reductions. These processes should greatly enhance the likelihood that the Paris Agreement will actually work.
Processes in the Paris Agreement that embody this approach include the following:
- Beginning in 2020, and every five years afterwards, each country is to “communicate and maintain successive nationally determined contributions that it intends to achieve.” These, of course, are in addition to those that countries already submitted. Each “successive nationally determined contribution” is to “represent a progression beyond the Party’s then current nationally determined contribution and reflect its highest possible ambition.”
- While financial assistance to developing countries has always been part of the international framework to address climate change, developed countries agreed to increase their level of financial support from previous levels by a nonspecific amount. Developed countries also agreed to communicate “indicative quantitative and qualitative information” about their financial support to developing countries, including projected future levels of public finance.
- Beginning in 2023, and every five years afterwards, the conference of the parties is to “take stock of the implementation of this Agreement to assess the collective progress towards achieving” its purpose. The outcome of this “global stocktake” is to “inform Parties in updating and enhancing, in a nationally determined manner,” including enhanced “international cooperation for climate action.”
- The agreement creates “an enhanced transparency framework for action and support.” This framework is partly to understand what NDCs actually mean and achieve. NDCs from different countries use different assumptions and baselines, and enhancing their comparability is essential. This transparency framework is also to better understand what financial contributions developed countries are actually making to developing countries.
- Recognizing that “[a]ccelerating, encouraging and enabling innovation is critical for an effective, long-term global response to climate change and promoting economic growth and sustainable development,” the agreement creates a Technology Mechanism. The purpose of the mechanism is to strengthen existing efforts to foster technology development and the transfer of technology to developing countries. The “global stocktake” is to consider this and other efforts to support “technology development and transfer for developing country Parties.”
These processes are different from the kind of obligations we are used to in environmental law–obligations, for example, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a certain amount by a certain date. Rather, these processes may be understood in terms of reflexive law and governance. Reflexive approaches are not substantive rules: they improve the capacity of governmental institutions and other entities to learn about themselves and their actions. Reflexive approaches also stimulate them to use this information to make appropriate changes. They create spurs to action.
In the context of the Paris agreement, reflexive governance seems intended to perform at least four key tasks. First, it should encourage or prod governments to be more ambitious over time, without being prescriptive about what they should do. This is true not only of emissions reductions but also, for developed countries, of their efforts to provide financial and technological resources to developing countries. Second, it will provide information to governments and others about what other governments are actually doing, as well information about the effectiveness and impacts of particular laws and policies. This information can then be used to modify those laws and policies. Third, because this information will be public, it means that governments are more likely to honestly and openly share what they are doing, and be responsive to the views of nongovernmental organizations and businesses as well as the public in general.
Finally, there are few areas in law and policy in which the playing field is changing faster than in climate change. The changes are not just new agreements, but also the rapid upscaling of renewable energy as its price drops, the wide variety of international coalitions working to accelerate greenhouse gas emission reductions in particular areas or sectors, changes in the emissions profiles of China and India over the past decade, improvements in our understanding of the science, and the greater availability of private finance. The Kyoto Protocol, hailed as an advance when approved in 1997, looks like a relic less than 20 years later.
These and other processes in the Paris Agreement are more likely to survive, accommodate, and address this shifting landscape in the years ahead. One could wish for a stronger agreement, but these processes are likely to make the global partnership to address climate change stronger and more effective over time. And they are particularly likely to do so because every country agreed to the ambitious goals toward which they are aimed.