The Paris Agreement Delivers a Champagne Moment

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The Paris Agreement’s modesty represents an important step forward in addressing climate change.

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There are times when we should pause, take a break from the stream of bad news that tends to dominate headlines, and celebrate. The Paris Agreement addressing climate change deserves celebration. As my mother might say, it is “a champagne moment.”

As with any major diplomatic achievement of this scope, which embraces 195 countries and tackles the most difficult global environmental problem in the history of humanity, there are flaws and uncertainties. Also, on paper, the Agreement does nothing to address the problem of climate change directly. It is true that the Paris Agreement has merely set up an administrative and legal framework for the real work to begin. Still, there is value in finding consensus and setting up such a framework.

The churlish responses of some environmentalists, such as Bill McKibben, who moans that the Paris Agreement comes twenty years too late in the context of a litany of contemporary climate disasters, and Jim Hansen, who derides the Paris Agreement as a “fraud” or worse because it does not adopt a global carbon tax, are misplaced. To criticize the Paris Agreement of doing too little to force political reform at the global level shows a failure to learn the lessons of previous international negotiations, from Kyoto to Copenhagen, that reached too far and returned too little.

In other words, a significant strength of the Paris Agreement is its modesty. It focuses on what can be done – and done best – at the international level. It leaves much work to others, including not only national governments, but also regional and local governments, businesses, non-profit organizations, academic bodies, and everyday citizens and consumers. If one takes an appropriately limited view of the potential for international law to solve this kind of problem, the Paris Agreement counts as a success, deserving of a holiday toast.

In my view, the Paris Agreement is successful because it adopts a “bottom-up” approach, which encourages each country to present their own climate change plans, rather than a “top-down” approach, which forces a “detailed treaty or agreement” onto all participants. I called for this kind of approach in an article on “Climate Contracts” published in the Virginia Environmental Law Journal in 2011. My recommendation followed other scholars, such as Richard Stewart, Benedict Kingsbury, and Bruce Rudyk, who forecasted in their 2009 book Climate Finance a move in “the global climate regime” from “a top-down command approach, exemplified by the Kyoto Protocol, to a more flexible bottom-up approach.” They predicted “a more plural, decentralized, and even fragmented” climate governance regime. Learning from the too-ambitious and failed top-down comprehensive solutions attempted at Kyoto in 1997 and Copenhagen in 2009, the Paris Agreement delivers on a more modest bottom-up vision. If environmentalists such as McKibben and Hansen are unhappy, it is due to their unrealistic expectations about what international law can actually accomplish.

In my view, the major accomplishments of the Paris Agreement are the following.

  1. The Agreement confirms a broad consensus of 195 different nations of diverse cultural and political backgrounds that the current scientific understanding of the serious risks of climate change requires a coordinated international effort to address. To mitigate these risks requires a goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels” and “to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.” At the insistence of some particularly vulnerable countries, including island nations, the Agreement adds an aspiration “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.” It recognizes the need for large-scale adaptation to a changing climate, as well as the key role of financial flows and investments for both mitigation and adaption. In addition, the Agreement highlights the need to conserve forests and other carbon “sinks.” It also emphasizes the necessity of technological innovation to solve the overall climate change problem, including the development of alternative energy options.
  1. In order to make progress, the Agreement adopts a new bottom-up iterative approach that requires each country to submit “nationally determined contributions” to mitigation and adaptation, as well as efforts to promote the financing and technological progress needed to address climate change. Skeptics say that this process will prove useless because each country is given the ability to compose its own plans with no constraints. In my view, however, this process allows for a practical resolution of the difficult balance between claims of differential abilities and ethical responsibilities of nation-states in a world of radical disparities of wealth, industrial development, and administrative capabilities.
  1. The Agreement breaks ground in establishing a new process to assure “transparency” and verification of mutual progress on national commitments. In broad terms, the Agreement promises that experts will develop agreed-upon international technical standards for reporting on various aspects of greenhouse gas emissions, forest preservation, energy use and efficiency, and other key variables. This is a role that makes sense for an international agreement. A useful analogy might be made to nuclear arms control regimes, recalling President Reagan’s admonition (based on a Russian proverb) to “trust, but verify.”
  1. The Agreement locks in participation of all nations going forward to join in a “global stocktake” of current progress (or not) toward agreed-upon targets and the likely need to ratchet up performance. This process is to be conducted every five years and provides an encouraging extension of current practices, linking periodic scientific updates with policy reviews.
  1. At the same time, the “compliance” committee established by the Agreement is toothless. To say in an international agreement that compliance with its provisions will be enforced by a vaguely specified process that will be “transparent, non-adversarial, and non-punitive” seems to stretch any acceptable meaning of true “compliance.” Nevertheless, establishing an iterative reporting process and the development of expert-determined standards is likely to generate oversight through diplomatic pressure and public opinion over time, perhaps leading to stiffer enforcement provisions in the future.
  1. Last but not least, a value of the Paris Agreement is its symbolism as a consensus document recognizing climate change as a global challenge serious enough for all of the countries of the world to unite and tackle. Indeed, the legal authority for the Paris Agreement traces to its earlier predecessor, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, agreed to by George H.W. Bush and other world leaders in Rio de Janeiro. The Paris Agreement follows other developments this year, including Pope Francis’s encyclical letter Laudato Si’, which emphasized the moral and economic challenges posed by climate change. These developments suggest that hardline political views that deny or downplay the risks (or even the legitimacy of the science) of climate change will likely diminish in influence going forward. It is true that economic downturns or terrorist attacks will tend to shift priorities. The Paris Agreement, however, reinforces an historical trajectory toward a long-term planetary scale management of what is probably the most serious threat to humanity (excepting perhaps the receding risk of global thermonuclear war).

Another important virtue of the Paris Agreement is that it is likely to galvanize the efforts of non-government institutions that will ultimately need to provide the real solutions to the problem of climate change. Business, for example, must play a critical part in technological innovation and financial investments in climate solutions. Coincident with the timing of the Paris Agreement, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and twenty other billionaires (as well as the University of California system) announced the formation of a new “Breakthrough Energy Coalition,” a massive commitment to financing new technologies and business ventures needed for what Gates has called an “energy miracle.” Eventually, when and if, by one means or another – through technological innovation, regulatory intervention, the social demand of citizens and consumers, or all of these factors working together – the price of alternative sources of energy such as solar, wind, and nuclear undercuts the price of coal, oil, and gas, then economic forces will join political and moral ones to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement that might otherwise currently appear remote. And if so, then allowing ourselves to have an optimistic and hopeful champagne moment now will be vindicated.

This essay is part of The Regulatory Review’s four-part series, Will the Paris Agreement Make a Difference?

Eric W. Orts

Eric W. Orts is the Guardsmark Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He also serves as faculty director of the Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership and co-faculty director for the FINRA Institute at Wharton.