Despite global summits and accords, the solution to climate change rests with individual countries.
With support from leaders from the world’s major economies, every nation in the world signed onto the Paris Agreement in 2015, acknowledging the “urgent threat” created by greenhouse gas emissions and putting in place a structure for nations to move forward to respond to that threat.
As leaders gather in Glasgow again this week for another global climate conference, the Paris Agreement’s ability to motivate meaningful emissions reductions is again in the spotlight. Yet despite the significant breakthrough that the Paris Agreement represented when it was forged six years ago, the future impact of this global accord remains precariously dependent on domestic political pressures more than on international law.
The Paris Agreement’s viability first wobbled when President Donald J. Trump announced in 2017 that the United States would withdraw from its terms. Under President Joseph R. Biden, the United States has rejoined the accords and is actively seeking again to demonstrate much-needed global leadership on climate issues.
But even so, the Biden Administration has here at home yet to secure passage of domestic legislation that could provide solid assurance that the nation will remain on track to meet the ambitious emissions reduction commitments that the Administration has made under the accords. Furthermore, other major greenhouse gas emitting countries, such as Brazil, China, India, and Russia, have failed to strengthen their emissions reduction commitments.
These complications in the implementation of the Paris Agreement make the Glasgow meeting of considerable symbolic importance, for it is an important opportunity for the global community to reaffirm its resolve in tackling climate change.
Current pledged emissions reductions under the accords, for example, remain less than needed to meet the Agreement’s goals. Yet, the very uncertainties that remain over how meaningfully major emitting nations will cut their emissions reveal some of the inherent structural limitations in the Paris Agreement’s approach to climate governance. Its basic scheme—sometimes described by analysts as “pledge and review”—depends on each nation declaring its own climate mitigation goals and developing plans to achieve those goals through domestic policy interventions.
The Agreement itself does not impose any substantive requirement that countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, it imposes an obligation that countries announce their own “nationally determined contributions” to the global effort to reduce emissions. It does not even make nations’ self-determined emission-reduction goals legally binding. Instead, it relies on a hope that, with transparent reporting of each country’s emissions reduction goals and progress in meeting them, countries will be confronted with political and diplomatic pressure to reduce emissions.
In its reliance on self-determined goals and plans, without any binding legal obligation to meet those goals and plans, the Paris Agreement has a direct parallel in domestic law to the regulatory strategy known as “management-based regulation.” Management-based regulation is characterized by its requirement that regulated entities develop their own objectives for achieving regulatory goals and create their own plans for achieving those objectives.
This approach to regulation has been used by governments around the world to address a wide variety of domestic policy concerns, such as food safety, occupational health and safety, environmental protection, domestic security, and the reduction of catastrophic industrial risk. As a result, the findings from research on these and other uses of regulation at the domestic level provide a window into what can realistically be expected from the Paris Agreement.
Unfortunately, the view from that window does not inspire great confidence. Indeed, the main conclusion to draw from domestic regulation is that a management-based approach to governance presents a paradox.
Under many circumstances, management-based regulation will prove to be the best strategy available—perhaps even the only realistic strategy available—and yet, due to its inherent structural limitations, a management-based strategy will also often only provide limited assurances of forward momentum. Such is the case with the Paris Agreement.
A strategy that allows each country to develop its own goals almost certainly reflects the best that could have been achieved in 2015 to secure a global climate agreement—and it remains the best hope today. In that sense, the Paris Agreement is certainly better than doing nothing—and, thus, both its importance and the importance of the Glasgow meeting should not be dismissed.
But because the Agreement still leaves most of the impetus for climate progress in the hands of individual countries, its impact as a global agreement will depend ultimately on domestic political pressures.
The Agreement relies mostly on soft international pressures—basically, shaming on the global stage—as its main incentive for nations to comply with their commitments under the accord. But this is a weak mechanism—and one that appears still weaker in a world that turns increasingly inwards as populist movements around the world make publics less trusting of both their own governments and of international cooperation more generally.
It is the ultimate paradox of the Paris Agreement’s management-based approach that the success of this signature global law hinges on domestic politics to a degree greater than other international agreements. Domestic politics is hardwired into the Paris Agreement’s bottom-up, management-based structure. The incentives for making ambitious national commitments, and following through on them, thus depend first and foremost on political leaders’ domestic audiences.
Only if the domestic political costs to climate inaction become palpable will national leaders be likely to undertake the hard, costly steps that climate action requires. In the end, notwithstanding the value of global meetings such as the one taking place in Glasgow, it remains the case that it is in capital cities around the world where global progress on climate change will rise or fall.
This essay is excerpted and adapted from the author’s article, “Pledging, Populism, and the Paris Agreement: The Paradox of a Management-Based Approach to Global Governance,” previously published in the Maryland Journal of International Law.