There were three main takeaways from the Paris climate change talks. First, the Paris talks showed that, more than ever, there is a consensus around the world that climate change poses a threat and needs to be addressed. None of the delegations were denying the science or arguing seriously that we shouldn’t make a serious effort to tackle the problem. This hasn’t always been true in the past.
Second, COP 21 showed the importance of finding solutions that appeal to both developed and developing countries. We need both groups of countries to participate in order to address the climate challenge, and the Paris Agreement seems to strike a better balance than most agreements in the past.
Third, COP 21 demonstrated the importance of climate finance. Rich countries like the United States, Canada, Japan and those in Europe are going to have to offer more aid, loans and investments if they want developing countries to engage in serious efforts to mitigate (that is, reduce greenhouse gas emissions). Developing countries also insist on more financial help to adapt to the impacts of climate change, which they’re already feeling. COP 21 was successful largely because increased North-to-South financing was a big part of the negotiations.
Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, which imposed binding targets only on industrialized countries to reduce their emissions, Paris relied on a different approach: Each country determined its own mitigation goal, known as an “intended nationally determined contribution,” or INDC. More so than the Kyoto targets, these INDCs should match the individual circumstances and political realities in each country. Also, unlike Kyoto, which focused on a small number of rich countries, the Paris Agreement calls for mitigation actions by almost every country in the world. This is critical because most future emissions will come from the developing world.
The Paris approach to accountability and compliance is what might be described as a “pledge-and-review” system. Each country commits publicly to a mitigation target, or at least mitigation actions, and then they are subject to a combination of national reporting and centralized monitoring to see if they’ve lived up to their commitments. Because the targets and actions aren’t legally binding, this is more of a political model of accountability than a legal model of compliance. Nevertheless, the expectation is that there will be considerable pressure—from NGOs, publics and other governments—to follow through on these public pledges. The delegates in Paris also agreed that governments will be expected to increase the ambition of their commitments every five years. This will provide regular opportunities for the application of added political pressure, domestically and internationally, to take on more serious commitments.
The success of the agreement in the United States will depend largely on the powers and political will of future presidents. President Obama quite intentionally sought a more informal agreement that could stand on its own without requiring ratification by the U.S. Senate, which is the normal procedure for formal international treaties. That insulates the Paris Agreement from being vetoed at the domestic level. Because he has faced so much opposition from Republicans in Congress when it comes to implementing climate policies at home, President Obama has relied on regulations under his control to reduce emissions, such as the EPA’s rules on emissions from power plants. This means that a future president could indeed reverse many of these decisions. The outcome of the 2016 presidential election could have a profound impact on the extent to which the United States is able to follow through on its international climate commitments. While the United States is an important global leader, even if the future president decided to overturn President Obama’s actions, the Agreement as a whole may not be totally undermined. After all, it was adopted by 196 countries.
Alexander Thompson (Ph.D., University of Chicago) is Associate Professor of Political Science and a Faculty Associate at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at The Ohio State University. Thompson’s research addresses the question of why states create and how they design institutions at the international level. Recent and ongoing projects focus on the evolution of the global climate regime, the negotiation and ratification of international investment agreements, legalization in the world trade, the politics of multilateral weapons inspections, the determinants of international organization performance, and the enforcement of international law.