Reasons for Optimism in the Paris Agreement

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Both governments and businesses show commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

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When discussing strategies to address climate change, it has become almost a matter of habit to include the caveat “given the unlikelihood of a global agreement to reduce emissions…” before proceeding with the discussion. The assumption embedded within this statement is that only a global, binding agreement with mandatory emissions limits can solve the climate change problem. The Paris Agreement does not contain these mandatory, binding emissions limits; it does not provide for any coercive sanctions for countries that fail to comply with their emissions pledges. Under this view, the Paris Agreement will not resolve the problem in a meaningful way. I want to suggest, however, that the Paris Agreement provides reasons for optimism about the role that international negotiation, and emerging norms both domestically and abroad, can play to combat this most urgent, global problem. In particular, I offer three reasons for optimism.

First, the scope of voluntary commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is extraordinarily broad. To date, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) has received Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) from 188 countries, including the United States, China, and the EU member states. These voluntary pledges to reduce emissions come from countries that collectively make up approximately 94% of global greenhouse gas emissions. A major sticking point for the United States in past international negotiations had been its view that major “developing” nations, such as China and India, should be required to mitigate emissions, not just the industrialized nations. Importantly, the INDCs now represent not only the industrialized countries, but also so-called developing nations. Thus, even though the INDCs are not formally binding, the broad participation in making commitments that underlies the Paris Agreement represents a significant step forward.

Second, the Paris Agreement contemplates more ambitious goals than prior global accords on climate change. Rather than remaining satisfied with the existing voluntary commitments, Article 2 of the Paris Agreement states that the nations of the world aim to limit “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.” The Agreement itself recognizes that there is a significant “gap” between the parties’ INDCs and even the 2-degree Celsius goal. Thus, in 2018, the parties will convene to hold a “facilitative dialogue” on their progress toward the Agreement’s goals. More formally, Article 14 requires the parties to “take stock” of these INDCs every five years starting in 2023 and contemplates ratcheting up of the mitigation and financing commitments. Again, while the Paris Agreement does not get all the way to the 2-degree Celsius goal, it provides a new framework for future cooperation.

The third reason for optimism derives not from the text of the Paris Agreement, but from the extraordinary actions in civil society and the private sector that occurred in the lead-up to and during these negotiations. More than 80 business firms have signed the American Business Act on Climate Change Pledge, voicing their support for an agreement in Paris and committing “to reduce their emissions, increase low-carbon investments, deploy more clean energy, and take other actions to build more sustainable businesses and tackle climate change.” Major energy firms also called upon the UNFCC to support global carbon pricing to provide clear, long-term goals for industry. Leaders in both the private and non-profit sectors have adopted innovative forms of private environmental governance, such as private carbon fees, to reduce emissions within their organizations. And the CDP (formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project) reported in September 2015 that 435 firms globally use an internal price on carbon to drive their investment decisions, if not yet to reduce emissions.

Across the private and public sectors, norms on climate action are shifting. The Paris Agreement was possible because of this shift, and it will continue to reinforce those shifting norms in positive ways. There is reason for optimism.


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

Sarah E. Light

Sarah E. Light is an Assistant Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches Environmental Management, Law, and Policy. Light’s scholarly articles have focused on issues of environmental regulation, governance, and management, including the national security implications of climate change.