Paris Climate Agreement: The Need for Speed

This week, a number of European countries will submit paperwork to the United Nations formally binding them to the Paris Agreement, raising the tally of committed countries above 55 percent of global emissions and triggering the agreement’s entry into force 30 days later. For those who thought the champagne corks popped last December in Paris, here’s a brief guide about why this week’s events constitute a historic milestone and what comes next.

Wait, isn’t Paris already done? What’s the big deal?

The Paris Agreement is indeed a big deal, for the reasons outlined below. But the negotiation last December wasn’t the end of the story. When thousands of negotiators leapt to their feet and adopted the agreement by acclamation, they locked down the text that would go back to national capitals to get approved. Those procedures vary by country—in some cases, ratification by legislatures, in other cases by decisions of the cabinet or the executive (in the case of the U.S., Paris only required the latter). Negotiators also decided that the agreement wouldn’t come into force until at least 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of global emissions went through those procedures and delivered their formal instruments of accession to the United Nations. Only then would the agreement become binding on those who signed up for it.

But when it comes to converting fully negotiated treaties into international law, there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip. Just look at the Kyoto Protocol. That climate agreement was also adopted by UN climate negotiators to rapturous applause and all-caps headlines in 1997. But countries dragged their feet in approving it, and when the United States withdrew in 2001, it took another four years to get to the requisite 55-countries-and-55-percent threshold. Those were eight crucial years of delay, during which the dramatic rise of emerging economies made an exclusively rich-country solution like Kyoto both politically and scientifically obsolete.

By contrast, the Paris Agreement rivals the record for fastest-ever entry into force of an international agreement (the champ: the UN charter itself back in 1945). The rush of national approvals has been so fast that it forced the European Union to revise its approval procedures to ensure it would not be left behind. This burst of speed is a strong endorsement of the Paris result, even given its fine balance of compromises on some issues. It also highlights the importance leaders assign to climate change among global issues. And it would not have happened so quickly without a big diplomatic push from President Obama, partnering with Chinese President Xi Jinping as he has before, to get other major players like India on board.

Crucially, entry into force locks all participating countries in for four years—something that is critical for the United States in particular to ensure that the next administration cannot leave the agreement the way President George W. Bush did with Kyoto.

Remind me again why Paris is important?

Paris is the first universal, long-term operational agreement for tackling climate change that includes a specific, clear global goal—achieving a climate-neutral global economy by the second half of the century—and the machinery countries will use to get there in five-year increments of commitments. Considering that global emissions are still rising, climate neutrality before 2100 implies a very ambitious decarbonization slope. It won’t happen unless every country, especially among the major emitters, is confident that all its competitors will move away from fossil fuels as well and are ready to shoulder the associated transition costs. For that reason, Paris requires all countries, big and small, to put forward the most ambitious possible commitments to decarbonize every five years—and in all cases, it’s a one-way ratchet.

Of course, solving climate change requires more than just words on a page. Paris is not sufficient but it is necessary—and provides the global consensus on the need to move fast together that has been elusive for a generation.

OK great. What’s next—or is this the end of history for global climate policy?

Er… I’m afraid not. With the Paris Agreement locked in, climate policy will be focused on three kinds of work.

First, at a domestic level, there will be intense focus on the implementation of national commitments—or nationally determined contributions (NDCs) in UN-speak. The U.S. target, a 26–28 percent reduction by 2025 compared to 2005 levels, will be very challenging to meet. The target requires a doubling of the rate of annual decarbonization of the U.S. economy to around 2.5 percent per year, and sustained action in every sector.

Second, countries will begin planning for their next set of targets as part of the five-year ratchet built into the Paris Agreement. The United States will need to set those plans sooner than most others, because we took on an initial set of 2025 NDCs whereas others chose a 2030 end date. Why 2025? We wanted a science-driven target consistent with an 80 percent-plus cut by 2050, a target derived from a bottom-up assessment of cost-effective measures in the economy, and one that could be achieved without reliance on congressional action. To solve that equation for 2030 (and remain on a path to 2˚C), the next administration likely can’t rely on executive actions alone—which means another national conversation about climate policy, involving Congress, is inevitable.

Third, the international climate regime itself must continue to evolve into “a more perfect union.” What’s the next stage? Under Paris, the targets themselves are not legally binding, which caused consternation in many quarters. Yet legal force does not necessarily translate into compliance under international law because of a lack of enforcement mechanisms with teeth. Canada withdrew without consequence from Kyoto, which had legally binding targets. The premise of Paris is that countries want to make the transition to a low-carbon economy because of its myriad benefits, but are concerned about competition along the way from free riders. Therefore, a means of incentivizing a true race to the top in climate ambition is needed. Looking at the range of effective “hard” enforcement mechanisms, we can reasonably rule out the use of force. That leaves economic incentives in the form of border adjustments that equalize carbon pricing across major economies as the most likely solution.

So here’s a challenge for up-and-coming climate policy enthusiasts who missed the Paris round: take on the challenge and design a WTO-compliant system for helping well-meaning countries enforce their ambitious national climate policies.

Paul Bodnar is a senior fellow at Rocky Mountain Institute and former senior director for energy and climate change in the Obama White House.