The Paris Agreement and the New Logic of International Climate Politics

The Paris Agreement and the new logic of international climate
London School of Economics and Political Science
Published in International Affairs 92(5) 2016, pp. 1107-1125.
* The author would like to thank Michael Jacobs for stimulating this effort to
think through the new logic of the Paris Agreement, and Rob Bailey, Fergus
Green and the anonymous reviewers of the journal for their helpful comments on
an earlier draft.
On 12 December 2015, 195 countries reached agreement on a new climate treaty
that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described as ‘a monumental triumph for
people and our planet’.1 The Paris Agreement represented a remarkable reversal
of fortune for the UN-sponsored climate negotiations. After adopting the UN
Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, which established
the objective of preventing dangerous human-induced climate change by
stabilizing greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere, the
international community spent over two decades negotiating legally binding
rules on how to rein in global emissions. But despite the creation of the 1997
Kyoto Protocol and instruments such as the Clean Development Mechanism,
emissions of the main GHGs (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) rose
steadily over this period. The 2009 Copenhagen conference, intended to create a
more effective successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol, collapsed in acrimony,
leading many observers to conclude that multilateral climate diplomacy had
reached a dead end. Has the Paris Agreement successfully broken the ‘global
warming gridlock’?2 And does it stand a chance of bringing global GHG emissions
under control?
This article reviews and assesses the outcome of the 21st Conference of
the Parties (COP-21) to the UNFCCC, held in Paris in December 2015. It argues
that the Paris Agreement does indeed break new ground in international climate
policy. COP-21 brought to an end over 20 years of UN negotiations focused on a
misguided approach of establishing mandatory emission reductions. Instead, the
Paris Agreement acknowledges the primacy of domestic politics in climate
change and allows countries to set their own level of ambition for climate change
mitigation. It creates a framework for making voluntary pledges that can be
compared and reviewed internationally, in the hope that global ambition can be
increased through a process of ‘naming and shaming’. By sidestepping the
1 ‘COP-21: UN chief hails new climate change agreement as “monumental
triumph”‘, UN News Centre, 12 Dec. 2015,
(Unless otherwise noted at point of citation, all URLs cited in this article were
accessible on 11 July 2016.)
2 David G. Victor, Global warming gridlock: creating more effective strategies for
protecting the planet (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011).
distributional conflicts that were inherent in the post-Kyoto negotiations, the
Paris Agreement manages to remove one of the biggest barriers to international
climate cooperation. It recognizes that none of the major powers can be forced
into drastic emissions cuts. However, instead of leaving mitigation efforts to an
entirely bottom-up logic, it embeds country pledges in an international system of
climate accountability and a ‘ratchet’ mechanism. In this sense, the Paris climate
summit heralds the beginning of a new era in international climate politics, one
that offers the chance of more durable international cooperation.
While the Paris Agreement thus establishes a more realistic approach to
international cooperation on climate change mitigation, it is far from clear
whether it can actually deliver on the urgent need to decarbonize the global
economy. According to analysis by the UNFCCC Secretariat, the national climate
policy pledges submitted in the run-up to the Paris conference would result in a
global warming of 2.7°C above pre-industrial levels, and this estimate is based on
the optimistic assumption that all national pledges will be fully implemented.3
The past record of climate policies around the world suggests that governments
have a tendency to express lofty aspirations but avoid tough decisions. For the
Paris Agreement to make a difference, the new logic of ‘pledge and review’ and
the subsequent ‘ratchet’ will need to mobilize international and domestic
pressure and generate realistic expectations for more substantial climate
policies worldwide. It matters, therefore, whether the Paris Agreement’s new
approach can be made to work.
This article offers a first-cut analysis of the new global governance
approach enshrined in the Paris Agreement, focusing on the mitigation
challenge. It begins by examining (in the first section) the changing context of
international climate politics between the 2009 Copenhagen Accord and the
2015 Paris conference. The second section reviews the main elements of the
Paris Agreement, and the third section analyses how the new logic of the climate
regime can work and what its limitations are. The final section sums up the
3 UNFCCC Secretariat, Synthesis report on the aggregate effect of the intended
nationally determined contributions, FCCC/CP/2015/7, 30 Oct. 2015,
argument and offers an outlook on the next steps in the international climate
From Copenhagen to Paris: the changing context of climate politics
The international community agreed in 2010 that it would seek to limit the rise
in the planet’s average air temperature to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial
levels. It has been widely accepted for some time that global warming above that
level should be avoided, although some scientists argue that this target does not
take into account the much larger heat absorption by oceans and that it should
therefore be lowered or abandoned altogether in favour of a broader set of
measures.4 To have a reasonable chance of staying below the 2°C limit, the world
needs to achieve a drastic reversal in current GHG emission trends. With some
gases (e.g. carbon dioxide) staying in the atmosphere for a century and future
emissions forecast to rise if no action is taken, globally coordinated measures are
needed to bring emissions under control. The United Nations Environment
Programme (UNEP) estimates that global GHG emission levels, which were at
52.7 gigatonnes (GT) of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2014, should be brought
down to 48 GT by 2025, and 42 GT in 2030. Carbon dioxide emissions alone will
need to be reduced to net zero—by 2060–2075 (from 35.5 GT in 2014).5
The magnitude of the international policy challenge is hard to overstate.
Most of the global carbon dioxide emissions, the biggest source of the humangenerated
greenhouse effect, result from the combustion of coal, oil and gas. It
was the harnessing of these fossil fuels that, together with the technological
innovations of the industrial revolution, made the modern industrial economy
possible. To avert the threat of runaway global warming, the global economy will
need to be weaned off carbon-intensive fuels. Unsurprisingly, therefore, global
4 David G. Victor and Charles F. Kennel, ‘Climate policy: ditch the 2°C warming
goal’, Nature 514: 7520, 2014, pp. 30–31.
5 UNEP, The emissions gap report 2015: a UNEP synthesis report (Nairobi: UNEP,
Nov. 2015). Carbon dioxide equivalent describes the global warming potential
for a mixture of GHGs, which includes carbon dioxide, the main source of global
warming, but also methane and nitrous oxide. ‘Net zero’ emissions refers to a
balance between carbon dioxide emissions and their reabsorption through sinks
(e.g. forests) or technologies that extract carbon dioxide from the air.
warming is a uniquely challenging—some might say ‘wicked’6—global policy
problem. Whereas other forms of pollution control require only minor changes
to industrial processes, the entire industrial system will need to be reengineered
to achieve a decarbonization of the global economy. The good news
is that many of the technologies that can bring about this transition to the lowcarbon
economy already exist, from renewable energy sources (e.g. solar, wind)
to improvements in energy efficiency. Some innovations, such as carbon capture
and storage, are on the horizon but are yet to be applied on a commercial scale,
while others (e.g. high-capacity nanobatteries, synthetic algae) may emerge only
after substantial investments. Even so, replacing fossil fuels will prove more
difficult in some sectors (e.g. air travel) than others, and the world’s existing
energy, transport and urban infrastructures have already locked in decades of
future carbon emissions. Despite the potential co-benefits (e.g. improvements in
air quality and health) that low-carbon investments are likely to yield,7 the cost
of taking carbon out of global production, trade and investment is
unprecedented in the history of environmental politics.
The political challenges are no less daunting. Although all major emitters
have made a public commitment to fighting global warming, it has proved
difficult to translate this normative engagement into collective action. One facet
of the problem is that while climate change mitigation requires considerable
investment in the short run, the benefits of stabilizing the global climate will
materialize only in the medium to long run. This makes it difficult for
governments to justify significant upfront expenditure, particularly given the
brevity of electoral cycles. Furthermore, climate change does not affect all
countries equally. Low-lying island states face an existential threat from rising
sea levels while others, especially countries near the Arctic Circle, may
experience greater agricultural output and easier access to natural resources as a
result of the thawing of permafrost. In any case, the high degree of uncertainty in
predicting long-term climate change and the costs and benefits associated with it
6 Kelly Levin, Ben Cashore, Steven Bernstein and Graeme Auld, ‘Overcoming the
tragedy of super wicked problems: constraining our future selves to ameliorate
global climate change’, Policy Sciences 45: 2, 2012, pp. 123–52.
7 Nicholas Stern, Why are we waiting? The logic, urgency, and promise of tackling
climate change (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), p. 39.
makes it difficult for governments to assess where their national interests lie. For
many, then, the most rational line to take may seem the wait-and-see approach.
And even if some emitters were to undertake major mitigation measures, they
could not be certain that other emitters would reciprocate. Reducing national
emissions amounts to the provision of a global ‘public good’ from which all
countries would benefit, with concomitant powerful free-riding incentives. Such
uncertainty about the behaviour of other emitters militates against a strong
international agreement. The international politics of climate change is further
complicated by the longstanding divide between developed and developing
countries over how to divide up the mitigation burden, particularly in view of
industrialized countries’ historical responsibility for the bulk of emissions.8
International society originally tried to get around these difficulties by
creating an international climate regime with mandatory emission reduction
targets. 9 International institution-building was meant to help build trust
between emitters and reduce the threat of free-riding. Following the example of
the successful international negotiations on ozone layer depletion, climate
negotiators set out in the early 1990s to create the UNFCCC, which established
the norm of climate protection. Building on this universal agreement, they then
hoped to negotiate a series of regulatory instruments that would set ever-stricter
targets for GHG emission reductions. The first such treaty, the Kyoto Protocol of
1997, set relatively modest targets, which required industrialized countries
(listed in Annex I) to reduce emissions by an average of 5 per cent against 1990
levels. Critically, Kyoto exempted developing countries from similar
commitments, thereby establishing a strong form of differentiation that
postponed mitigation action by developing countries for an unspecified time. In
theory, the Kyoto Protocol was meant to be only a first step. Much like the
Montreal Protocol on substances depleting the ozone layer, it was meant to be
revised and strengthened, and the 2009 Copenhagen conference was expected to
produce a successor agreement that would also include mitigation efforts by
8 J. Timmons Roberts and Bradley C. Parks, A climate of injustice: global
inequality, North–South politics, and climate policy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,
9 On the history of the climate negotiations, see Joyeeta Gupta, The history of
global climate governance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
non-Annex I countries, some of which (e.g. China) had seen their emissions
increase dramatically in the years since Kyoto. This was not how it worked out,
In the end, the Annex I countries were able collectively to comply with the
treaty’s provisions, but this did little to slow the rise in global emissions. There
are several reasons why the Kyoto Protocol does not offer a viable approach to
mitigating climate change. First, by setting a static emissions reduction target,
the regime failed to create dynamic incentives to decarbonize the economy.
While some countries (e.g. Canada) failed to meet the Kyoto targets, others
reduced emissions without making any effort: such was the case for Russia and
other post-Soviet states that experienced de-industrialization after the collapse
of communism. Second, agreeing new targets for a second commitment period
after 2012 proved difficult because the focus on legally binding targets had
turned the climate negotiations into a distributional conflict over respective
shares of the mitigation burden. Industrialized countries that had struggled or
failed to comply with Kyoto were reluctant to subject themselves again to
another set of rigid targets: as a result, Canada withdrew from the treaty while
Japan and Russia declared they would not enter into new commitments. Third,
the rigid divide between Annex I and non-Annex I countries had made it difficult
to deal with the rapidly rising emissions of emerging economies that did not
want to stifle their future economic development by imposing limits on future
Although seen as a failure at the time, the 2009 Copenhagen conference
(COP-15) succeeded in laying the ground for a new approach that has now come
to fruition in the Paris Agreement.10 After two weeks of fruitless negotiations by
diplomats and regulatory experts at COP-15, a select group of heads of state
hammered out a political compromise deal, the Copenhagen Accord, which
foreshadowed many of the elements now contained in the Paris Agreement.
Sidestepping the thorny issue of internationally agreed and legally binding
emissions targets, Barack Obama for the United States, Wen Jiabao for China,
10 Robert Falkner, Hannes Stephan and John Vogler, ‘International climate policy
after Copenhagen: towards a “building blocks” approach’, Global Policy 1: 3, pp.
Manmohan Singh for India and other world leaders agreed to a system of
voluntary pledges as the basis for future climate action. For the first time, major
emitters from the developing world showed a willingness to contribute to the
global mitigation effort without waiting for developed countries to fully
implement their existing commitments. The Copenhagen Accord thus finally did
away with the Kyoto Protocol’s ‘firewall’ between Annex I and non-Annex I
countries, paving the way for a more comprehensive mitigation deal.
Copenhagen also saw the beginning of other innovations in climate policy, from
the Green Climate Fund and a promise of up to US$100 billion a year by 2020 of
climate finance to fund mitigation and adaptation in developing countries to a
system for monitoring, reporting and verification of emissions and financial
Developments at the subnational and regional level are key to
understanding the gradual transformation that has occurred in international
climate politics. While concern over climate change was on the rise throughout
the 2000s, it was towards the end of the decade that critical momentum was
built for a global agreement. Even in countries that had been laggards in the
international negotiations, such as the United States, a groundswell of bottom-up
initiatives had begun to change the political agenda.11 Around the world, local
community groups have sprung up to advance voluntary carbon emission
reductions; multinational corporations have increasingly invested in low-carbon
business opportunities and adopted corporate social responsibility approaches
with an explicit focus on climate change; institutional investors have begun to
demand greater transparency on climate risks in business operations; and
subnational authorities such as cities and municipal governing bodies have taken
it upon themselves to create climate mitigation pledges and policies. 12
Increasingly, these bottom-up initiatives have come together in transnational
networks that coordinate their activities and promote diffusion of climate
policies throughout the world. The trend towards transnationalization of climate
initiatives, which gathered pace particularly from the early 2000s, has embedded
11 Henrik Selin and Stacy D. VanDeveer, ‘Climate change regionalism in North America’,
Review of Policy Research 28: 3, 2011, pp. 295–304.
12 Matthew J. Hoffmann, Climate governance at the crossroads: experimenting with
a global response after Kyoto (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 7–8.
climate policy more deeply in the domestic agenda of leading emitters, has
helped spread low-carbon policy approaches and technologies around the world,
and is stimulating a growing interest in innovative global solutions.13
The growth in transnational initiatives has gone hand in hand with
strengthened domestic policy commitments to climate change mitigation. The
first comprehensive review of climate legislation found that the number of
climate change laws and policies worldwide doubled every five years since 1997,
with 426 climate change laws and policies in place by the time of the 2009
Copenhagen conference, rising to 804 by the end of 2014.14 Interestingly, this
applies not just to Annex I countries, which have traditionally led the way in
climate legislation, but also to non-Annex I countries.15 The effects of this change
in domestic politics can be seen in China, which became the world’s largest
emitter of carbon dioxide in 2006. Not least in response to growing domestic
concern over extreme air pollution, but arguably also in response to external
pressure, China’s political leadership established the reduction of the economy’s
energy intensity and climate intensity as key targets in the 12th Five Year Plan
(2011–2015), in line with commitments made at the 2009 Copenhagen summit.
The 13th Five Year Plan (2016–2020) is set to expand the range of policy
instruments aimed at controlling emissions.16 In 2014, China made the largest
investment in renewable energy sources of any country in the world, estimated
at US$83.3 billion—more than double the United States’ investment of US$38.3
13 Harriet Bulkeley, Liliana Andonova, Michele M. Betsill, Daniel Compagnon,
Thomas Hale, Matthew J. Hoffmann, Peter Newell, Matthew Paterson, Charles
Roger and Stacy D. VanDeveer, Transnational climate change governance
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
14 Michal Nachmany, Sam Fankhauser, Jana Davidová, Nick Kingsmill, Tucker
Landesman, Hitomi Roppongi, Philip Schleifer, Joana Setzer, Amelia Sharman, C.
Stolle Singleton, Jayaraj Sundaresan and Terry Townshend, The 2015 global
climate legislation study: a review of climate change legislation in 99 countries.
Summary for policy-makers (London: Grantham Research Institute on Climate
Change and the Environment, 2015), p. 12.
15 Nachmany et al., The 2015 global climate legislation study, p. 20.
16 Fergus Green and Nicholas Stern, ‘China’s changing economy: implications for its
carbon dioxide emissions’, Climate Policy, forthcoming in print but available online:
million that year.17 The groundswell of domestic climate action has made it more
likely that major emitters will contribute to a collective international effort, even
if most continue to oppose mandatory emissions reductions.
One important factor behind this shift is the growing recognition among
major polluters that the obstacles to a low-carbon energy transition are not as
high as had been previously thought. As more and more emission-reducing and
energy-saving policies have been put in place, gradual technological
improvements, market competition and greater economies of scale have pushed
down the costs of low-carbon technologies. Solar photovoltaic energy, for
example, has become a cost-effective energy source in many parts of the world.
The cost of photovoltaic modules has fallen by an average rate of about 10 per
cent per year since 1980,18 and the fall in solar energy prices has speeded up
more recently as China has ramped up solar-cell production from 50 megawatts
of generation capacity in 2004 to 23,000 megawatts in 2012.19 Thanks to falling
unit costs and rising overall investment, renewable energy sources contributed
almost half of the new power generation capacity added worldwide in 2014.20
Achieving a rapid reduction in emissions is still perceived by many states as a
costly affair, but major emitters have grown more confident that a gradual shift
towards a low-carbon economy will not necessarily harm their long-term growth
strategies. This shift in attitudes was clearly visible in the run-up to the 2015
Paris climate summit. Having already agreed at the Copenhagen summit to
reduce the carbon intensity of its economy, the Chinese government now
signalled that it was willing to commit to no further rise in GHG emissions after
2030.21 The United States, too, has indicated a greater willingness to work with
17 UNEP, Global trends in renewable energy investment 2015 (Frankfurt am Main:
Frankfurt School–UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate and Sustainable Energy