This is not the first significant global agreement on climate change. In 1992, the Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed by 154 countries at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, and was subsequently amended with the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. So what is different about the Paris Agreement?
Developing countries have made a formal commitment to sharing responsibility for tackling the problem of climate change.
Under the Kyoto Protocol, developing countries were not required to join the industrialized world in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In 2001, I interviewed Anthony LaVina, the lead climate negotiator for all developing countries during the Kyoto meeting, which organize themselves as the Group of 77, or G-77. He reported that many developing countries were prepared to commit to reducing emissions at the time, and were surprised that the Clinton Administration caved in so quickly to their initial negotiating position of assuming no commitments. The Paris Agreement includes the idea of a universal commitment, at least in principle, by essentially all of the world’s countries.
The Paris accord does not include specific national commitments for emissions reductions.
Vague treaty language is generally undesirable because it makes it quite difficult to measure compliance. The reason that the Paris accord does not include specific national commitments for emissions reductions is that participation by the United States would have been impossible if these had been included. Although no one political faction can take credit or blame for the current state of affairs, this is a major victory for leaders in the US Republican Party, who almost single-handedly caused the world’s countries to avoid making binding quantitative commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
Under US law, such an agreement would have constituted a new treaty, rather than an elaboration of the 1992 treaty, and any new treaty requires approval by the Republican-dominated Senate. The Obama administration devised a legal runaround: without specific national commitments, this is not a new treaty and does not require Senate approval.
On the positive side, the vague language of this agreement is only the beginning.
Under the framework convention-protocol model that is a common practice in international law, framework treaties typically establish broad, overarching goals at the outset (Climate change is bad—we should so something). This facilitates agreement by a wide range of countries and typically includes, as does the Paris Agreement, a process for regular meetings and revisions. Subsequent protocols negotiated by the Parties to the Convention then elaborate more specific commitments. So we can expect to see more details in coming years. Pay special attention to something called REDD+, which is expected to mobilize billions of dollars annually from polluters in rich countries to promote forest conservation in the tropics.
Finally, keep in mind that international treaties only matter to the extent that they catalyze national policy change.
There is no international government. The United Nations, the climate treaty Secretariat, and all international treaties, despite all the pomp and circumstance, are created purely at the discretion of member governments, which decide whether to contribute funds, enforcement personnel, and so forth. As a result, any attempt to manage planet earth is an effort at governance in the absence of government.
Nations hold the political power, regulatory authority, and purse strings that decide whether the transportation sector, energy investments, agricultural development, and other sectors move toward or away from climate-friendly practices. (Local governments hold comparatively little power, except in decentralized countries like the United States, Brazil, and Germany. There is, however, a major global trend toward giving a larger share of regulatory power and tax revenues to local governments.)
The Paris Agreement will be significant only to the extent that it can motivate domestic policy change, cross-national technical assistance, and social pressure to reduce nations’ dependence on fossil fuels. In this regard, the Paris Agreement’s new emphasis on transparent national approaches is potentially significant. When civil society organizations have access to high quality information about their governments’ policies and performance, this can be a powerful force for change.
A significant body of research shows that even when policy reformers have fallen short of their substantive policy goals (such as binding national climate commitments), revisions in how decision-making occurs—in this case, subjecting government performance to greater public scrutiny—can have salutary long-term effects.
Image Credit: “Cool Globes Chicago Hands Working Together” by John Legear. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr