The Paris Agreement in a Nutshell – And Why It’s Probably Not Going to Work

Unless you live somewhere in a hut on top of a mountain on Mars without internet connection (although apparently now there’s wifi on Mars, hah, my fellow Germans will know what I’m referring to), you have probably at least heard the famous (can I say “infamous” or is that too much bias too early on? I mean, we are only one sentence into this blog post, calm down, Simone. Oof, and already I’m censoring myself. Why can’t I write like a normal person?! This is not the best start.) term “Paris Agreement”. But if you’re not majoring in an environment-related field or taking a course on climate change policy or the like, you might not know what exactly it comprises (even I have to still look it up all the time and I’m an environmental studies major AND took a climate change policy class last semester … but I think that’s just my personal problem), so allow me a brief summary before I start bashing it.

In 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC for short) came into force, “an international treaty[…][,] a framework for international cooperation to combat climate change by limiting average global temperature increases and the resulting climate change, and coping with impacts that were, by then, inevitable” (UN Climate Change). The Kyoto Protocol was created and negotiated along the guidelines outlined in the UNFCCC, and so was the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement came into force on November 4th, 2016. By January of this year, 184 countries had already joined the agreement, almost all of those that are party to the UNFCCC (197). 

UN Climate Change (2019)

Near the end of last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report according to which in 2017 the global average temperature had risen by roughly one degree celsius relative to pre-industrial levels (referring to the period from 1850 to 1900 in this case) as a result of human activities. And it is expected to increase even more over the course of this century. Why is this a big deal, you ask? Because that additional one degree has already visibly impacted global climate: heatwaves on land and sea are growing more frequent, rainfalls are becoming more heavy and intense, and there is a higher risk of droughts in the Mediterranean (necessary side note: I’m so proud of myself for spelling that right at the first attempt, heh) region. More rain might not sound like something bad at first, but it can lead to floods in some regions, for example, or negatively affect agriculture in others. If the global average temperatures continues to rise even further, these impacts too will grow worse, possibly to a point where we we are not able to deal with them anymore (well, not like´ we are able to deal with them now … I mean, remember the floods in Japan last year? Definitely nobody was able to handle anything back then, and nobody can tell me that those floods were not at least partially because of climate change.)

Anyway, the main objective of the Paris Agreement is to motivate global action against climate change to keep the rise in global average temperature “well below” (whatever “well below” means) two, ideally even below 1.5 degrees celsius relative to pre-industrial levels. In order to do achieve this goal, the agreement obligates all participatory nations to define so-called nationally determined contributions (NDCs – basically what actions and efforts they are going to make to fight against climate change). All parties have to submit NDCs, but there are no rules or requirements as to how ambitious the NDCs should be and in what shape they should come. NDCs can be quantitative or qualitative, conditional or unconditional. For example, the US under former president Obama (we miss you, Barry, come back please) committed to reducing emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025 (relative to 2005 levels). This would be an example of a more quantitative NDC. In contrast, India has some more qualitative (and more general or loose) goals, like the adoption of a “climate friendly and cleaner path” to development (Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change). 

In this regard, the Paris Agreement is quite different from its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol was a “standard” top-down treaty containing a bunch of legally-binding reduction targets for greenhouse gas emissions for its parties. However, there was no punishment in case any of the parties to the protocol failed to meet the pre-set targets. Also, the protocol was worked out as early as 1997, but only stepped into force in 2005, meaning that there was an eight-year-gap between its creation and its enforcement— eight years during which a lot of things in the world changed (seriously procrastination at its finest). Plus, under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility”, the protocol obligated only developed nations to reduce their emissions; developing nations were left out of the equation. Which never made any sense, if you ask me, because China, then (and still today … really now?) classified as a developing nation, actually overtook the US as the world’s largest emitter in 2006, only one year after the Kyoto Protocol entered into force, but was still not bound by any of the agreement’s regulations (which was one of the reasons why the US went like “Lol I’m out bros” shortly after the agreement went into force. Okay, they probably/obviously did not say it like that, but you know.) (I should stop trying to make this funny.) So yeah, all of these factors are why the Kyoto Protocol was, as international lawyer and visiting fellow at University of Toronto Dr. Maria L. Banda (random side note, but this woman seems like a super badass, I want to be like her when I grow up [ignore the fact that I’m almost 24 already]) put it in her 2018 publication, “effectively obsolete from the outset“.

The Paris Agreement seems to be a response to the failure of the Kyoto Protocol as it essentially attempts to do the opposite. For Example, it works from bottom to up instead of from top to down, by not imposing set targets on participatory nations, but asking them to create their own. This feature is probably one of the factors that has facilitated this many signatories to the treaty. It requires both developed and developing nations to submit NDCs and make efforts to achieve them. Also, the NDCs are not only obviously very nation-specific, but also have to be reported on and updated every few years, allowing for adjustments and updates in conjunction with changes in climate-change-related technology and information.

Sounds overall pretty promising, right? So why do many people think that it’s not going to work? Because, reasons. Many reasons. Here we go.

The lack of means of enforcement and punishment. To quote Dr. Banda, again (her paper is pure gold, I swear): “The Agreement’s universality […] came at the cost of reduced legal bindingness.” Defining and submitting NDCs is mandatory, but actually achieving them is not. If a party fails to fulfill its promises and goals, it will not be penalized under the agreement. The agreement shakily balances itself on the hopeful assumption that countries will try their best to deliver on their NDCs because they feel some sort of peer pressure at the fact that their aims are made public which means they could possibly be held accountable in the case of failure. Because of this same peer pressure, the agreement hopes, nations’ pledges could grow more ambitious over time. This kind of “peer pressure” has worked in the case of international trade, after all. In the international trade regime, initially voluntary communication and interaction among global economic players have become the standard. Today, if a nation chooses not to engage in international trade (I mean, arguably, there are nations that could sustain themselves even without international trade, to a minimum level at least), it can (well, it will) experience punishment in the form of various economic losses. So, in the case of international trade, the concept of peer pressure is arguably valid/effective. But can the use of peer pressure in the Paris Agreement really be compared to this? After all, nations will not face any clear, direct punishment if they do not reach their NDCs. (Did that make any sense? I hope so.)

The weak language. The English version of the Paris Agreement is 25 pages long and consists of 29 articles. This is relatively short compared to, for example, Agenda 21 (a so-called plan of action created at the Rio Conference in 1992 that contained a number of [pretty broad and somewhat unclear] goals like, for example, sustainable development and the eradication of poverty) which was hundreds of pages long (which is probably too long though, hah). Some of the articles of the agreement (for example, Article 4 on mitigation) use more definite and prescriptive vocabulary like “shall”, but most reply on more fuzzy terms like “should” (like me in all of my university papers, I feel ya, policy makers, life is hard) (and comments like these are why I’ll never work for the UN, no way they’ll hire me if they ever see this). The agreement is pretty vague, forcing signatory nations to hold more meetings and conferences in the future to be able to hammer out the details. But I mean, that’s international treaties for you, this factor is arguably pretty hard to avoid. 

Unambitious goals. The Paris Agreement draws its strength from nations’ ambitions to lower their emissions and combat climate change. But what if those ambitions are not set high enough? “To keep warming below 2C, countries must triple their current efforts. For the more ambitious target of 1.5C, countries must raise ambitions by five times,” Reuters energy correspondent Bate Felix wrote in an article published by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with Reuters at the end of November 2018. And then there is also this illustration released by the Climate Action Tracker.

Climate Action Tracker (2018)

This image summarizes an evaluation of the NDCs of 32 nations that are party to the Paris Agreement. None of the nations occupies the “role model” function and only two have submitted NDCs that are in line with the ideal goal of the agreement of keeping the increase in global temperature below 1.5 degrees celsius. Five of the countries, while out of tune with the 1.5 degree target, have NDCs compatible with the two degree target. All other states’ NDCs are insufficient for reaching the aims of the Paris Agreement. “If all governments achieved their [current] Paris Agreement commitments the world will likely warm 3.0°C — twice the 1.5°C limit they agreed in Paris,” the Climate Action Tracker wrote in the corresponding article. This is lower than the four degree increase projected to take place if global business were to continue as usual, but will still have catastrophic consequences. For example, Jennifer Devlin Calkins (University of Washington) wrote in her 2018 publication “Paris When It Sizzles” (A+ for that title, seriously, love it. Her entire paper is actually really enjoyable to read, or maybe that’s just my secret-not-so-secret inner nerd talking) that “a world with a 3°C increase over pre-industrial times will see Osaka, Japan, Miami, USA, and Shanghai, China under water.”

Last, but not least … time for a paragraph dedicated to our favourite president. 

The “Trump Effect”. Current US President Donald Trump, convinced that “global warming is a hoax concocted by China to weaken the competitive industrial power of the U.S.” (this is literally how Yong-Xiang Zhang and his fellow researchers/co-authors from the Chinese National Climate Centre and the China Meteorological Administration Training Center worded it in their 2017 paper, and I love it, hah), declared in June 2017 that the US would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, at least until it was made “fair” to the US. While it is specified in the agreement that the US can actually not pull out until November 4th, 2020 the earliest — which is one day after the next US presidential election, so let’s just pray that Trump will not be re-elected (Bernie! Bernie!) —, Trump’s bullshit, uhm sorry, I mean statement has already evoked different responses nationally as well as internationally. Joseph Curtin, senior fellow at the Institute of International and European Affairs as well as a member of the Climate Change Advisory Council, summarizes these responses as the “Trump Effect”.

According to Curtin, this Trump Effect unfolds in three different ways. First, it has led to the reversal of some national-level climate regulations, in turn negatively affecting “green” investment patterns inside the US and “global technology learning curves” in- and outside of the US. According to Curtin, after the Paris Agreement entered into force in 2016, investment in “dirty” energy assets like coal and tar sand greatly decreased, by as much as 38 percent, as an analysis among 36 banks by the International Energy Agency (IEA) revealed. The same analysis found that in 2017 — the year in which Trump announced the US withdrawal — investment in said fossil fuel energies increased again by six percent while investment in renewable energies dropped by seven percent. Second, the Trump Effect is partially responsible for “souring goodwill between developing and developed country parties”. Man, I hate it when smart academic people write stuff vaguely like this. The way that I understand this is that this “souring goodwill” can be seen in the fact that the Trump administration cancelled the promise made by ex-President Obama to donate three billion USD to the Green Climate Fund created in 2009, for example. Third, the Trump Effect acts as a “political and moral cover for further defections from the Paris Agreement”, Curtin says. The US is an important political and economic power worldwide, and despite other important global players like the European Union and China constantly emphasizing their commitment to the Paris Agreement, the US withdrawal still “leaves a moral vacuum at the heart of the Paris Agreement”. Nations around the globe are watching one of the richest and most powerful states turn away from the climate pact, and start asking themselves why they should make an effort to participate if the US, one of the most important players, is not. Take Brazil, for example, where newly-elected president Jair Bolsonaro was seen defending Trump’s decision to leave the agreement on social media, even promising to follow in his footsteps (I wanted to look up some tweets and share them here, but his twitter is entirely in Portuguese and my brain is not yet awake enough to be trying to decipher Portuguese. I’ll do it. Sometime. In the near future. I promise.) (Oh but here’s one where he refers to greenhouse gases as a “fable”, OK BOLSONARO.) Curtin concludes that the Paris Agreement is not exactly failing or in crisis because of the Trump Effect, but still negatively impacted.

Those are some reasons why I think that the Paris Agreement will ultimately not change much in the end, at least not directly. Or rather, the same reasons that I wrote about in my paper for above-mentioned climate change policy class which I totally used huge parts of for this post, hah (but then again, hey, what is wrong with that, it is still my writing after all.) Which is really sad and disappointing in my opinion because the agreement is being praised in the media and by various individuals and organizations as a “milestone” or “a first in history” (which is not necessarily untrue, but) … but in the end it seems to be just another (vague) international treaty. I really hope that I get proven wrong. But I think that more (different) action is necessary in order to achieve the two degree goal than what the agreement tries to elicit. Which I will probably write about in another post. Because, while I did touch upon that in my paper, I need to do a lot more research, hah. (Okay, me saying “my paper” all the time makes me sound super pretentious for some reason. It was just a term paper, though. Nothing fancy. Don’t hate me please.) Anyway, if you have read until here, thank you so much! If you have an opinion of your own (or any feedback, things you found interesting, things you did not like [especially those, so I can improve]), feel free to share! Until next time!

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