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date: 14 April 2021

Energy, Climate Change, and Global Governance: The 2015 Paris Agreement in Perspective

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter considers the relevance of international cooperation to the governance of global energy and climate issues and the restricted way in whichthese issues are framed. It provides an analysis of the development of the international climate change regime from the negotiation of the UNFCCC to the implementation of its Kyoto Protocol and the search for a new but very different agreement, achieved at Paris in late 2015. The Paris outcome reflected the intersection of national economic interests and seismic structural changes in the global political economy that vastly altered the distribution of emissions in the context of the increasing competitiveness of renewables. Meeting demands for climate justice with a new emphasis on development funding and adaptation was critical to the achievement of an agreement. As ever, what might seem to be functional and technical negotiations were permeated by international politics and assertions of national sovereignty, recognition, and prestige.

Keywords: energy, global, UNFCCC, Kyoto Protocol, climate justice, international politics

Studying the International Relations (IR) of the environment is a relatively recent academic endeavor for a discipline that has been generally more concerned with questions of war and peace, order and security. Climate change, of course, is critically associated with anthropogenic CO₂ emissions, two-thirds of which arise from energy production and use (IEA, 2015, p. 20), and IR scholars are no strangers to international conflicts over scarce hydrocarbon resources. It also has become clear in both academic and policy circles that the impacts of climate change are likely, at the very least, to provide a “threat multiplier” complicating existing conflicts and are likely to spawn entirely new international and intra-state confrontation (Detraz & Betsill, 2010; European Council, 2008). Such matters were not at the heart of IR approaches to issues of atmospheric pollution and natural resource depletion. Rather, their overriding concern, within a liberal institutionalist tradition, was to study the ways in which international cooperation and policy coordination to manage common environmental problems could be achieved within a “fragmented and often highly conflictual political system” of sovereign states in which there was no central authority (Hurrell & Kingsbury, 1992, p. 1). This is now commonly seen as an exercise in “global environmental governance”—with the management of climate change being regarded as its primary task.

However, the actual meaning of “global climate governance” is variously interpreted. For a long period in official circles, the term was merely used as a synonym for intergovernmental cooperation. Strictly speaking, the term “governance” is appropriate because there can be no government in a system composed of sovereign state entities, but the term has come to embrace the myriad private, transnational, regional, and local activities that serve to shape and control climate-related activities (Bulkeley & Schroeder, 2012; Pattberg, 2007). The apparent failure of governments to cooperate effectively in fulfilling the aspirations of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate (p. 16) Change (UNFCCC) has led to a focus on such non-state activity and frequent denial of the continuing relevance of international action (Andonova et al., 2009). This chapter attempts to redress this balance in the light of the Paris climate agreement that was achieved in late 2015. It considers the ways in which the international system has framed climate and energy issues and how international climate action—or more often, inaction—has been shaped by the seismic structural changes in the global political economy over the last three decades and by the day-to-day pursuit of national interest and prestige, which is also indissolubly connected to normative demands for climate justice in a very unequal system.

While it is true that the key decisions and actions that shape humanity’s response are located at many social and economic levels and particularly involve private economic entities, there is still an important role for state governments acting in a coordinated manner. In order to avoid over- or underestimating the role of international cooperation in general and the UNFCCC climate regime in particular, it is important to establish what this might be. It has several components. First, international cooperation is required to monitor and restrict transboundary movements of pollutants and to regulate trade. Second, it is generally the case that only governments are in a position to fund the major research and aid and technology transfers upon which effective environmental action depends. It is no accident that the impressive international scientific enterprise for the production of authoritative knowledge and advice on a changing climate is named the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Although there are frequent optimistic references to private-sector development and adaptation funding, the bulk of this derives from coordinated government donations through international agencies such as the Global Environmental Facility of the World Bank and the more recently established Green Climate Fund. The extensive international climate architecture that will be discussed below is not integrated, with or matched, by attempts at international energy regulation. This has been rudimentary. The International Energy Agency (IEA) was a collective response to the energy security issues of the 1970s; more recently, there has been an attempt to stimulate renewables technology in the International Renewable Energy Association (IRENA) (Van de Graaf, 2013). Potentially, there is an enormous role for governments in funding and organizing the kind of energy transition that most experts argue will be required if the most damaging effects of climate change are to be avoided (Victor, 2011). Third, there is the key matter of providing governance arrangements for a global commons to cope with “market failure” at the international level, where unrestricted economic activity will lead to collective “tragedy.” International standards and rules are thus required, but governments will not be prepared to restrict polluting activities within their own jurisdiction if they cannot be assured that others will do likewise. For economists, dealing with this “free-rider” problem is a key function of an international regime that directs attention to its monitoring, compliance, and enforcement arrangements (see, for example, Stern, 2007). Finally, there is the more intangible dimension of norm generation that provides the context and justification for particular actions: shared understandings on principles such as the “polluter pays” or the “precautionary principle,” definitions of sustainability, (p. 17) what constitutes dangerous climate change, and the responsibility of the international community for loss and damage. A great deal of international activity from the 1992 Earth Summit, with its Agenda 21, to the UN’s millennium goals and Article 2 of the Paris Agreement, displays such normative intent.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992)

In a world still divided by the second phase of the Cold War, climate change began to be recognized as a policy problem during the 1980s. This was a decade characterized by a dawning awareness of environmental problems at a global scale. Notable was the discovery of the depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer caused by emissions of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other “man-made” gases. In 1985 the Vienna Convention outlined the problem and called for international action to ban or restrict ozone-depleting chemicals. This was to occur quite rapidly with the signature of the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which soon came to be regarded as a paradigm for successful international environmental action that incorporated emergent scientific findings into an ongoing program of regulation that would successively ban production and trade in a range of ozone-depleting substances (ODS). The interconnections between the stratospheric ozone and climate regimes were established early on, not the least of which was that the ODS were in themselves powerful greenhouse gases (GHGs) (their regulation is specifically excepted from the scope of the 1992 Climate Convention). Significantly, the negotiation of a new climate treaty commenced shortly after the signature of the Montreal Protocol and adopted its legal and institutional approach—a “framework convention” to define the problem and encourage and respond to scientific findings (the IPCC was set up in 1988) and a “control protocol” to initiate concrete action. This primary framing of the climate issue seemed appropriate at the time but failed to adopt a similar targeted regulatory approach. Of course the ozone problem was very specific, involving a set of gases for which substitutes were usually available, while the problem of excess GHGs was infinitely more complex and wide-ranging, touching the very essence of a hydrocarbon-based civilization. It still might have been possible, but exceedingly difficult, to follow the Montreal model by identifying and restricting particular emission sources, such as the mining of and trade in coal. In the event, the International Negotiating Committee (INC) adopted a much looser universal approach by attempting to reduce overall national emissions of GHGs and to conserve carbon sinks (Articles 2 and 4 of the UNFCCC). Because the lion’s share of anthropogenic CO₂ emissions (the principal GHG) is related to power generation and transport, this implied, but did not propose, energy policy measures. In the international transport sector, rising aviation- and shipping-related emissions were excluded from the developing climate regime on the grounds that this would cut across the remit of other international organizations (p. 18) (the International Civil Aviation and International Maritime organizations, ICAO and IMO). The European Union (EU) was subsequently to fail in its 2012 attempt to include international aviation emissions in its Emissions Trading Scheme, and aviation fuel and maritime bunkering remain largely uncontrolled, pending ongoing and protracted attempts by the ICAO and IMO to erect their own schemes for international carbon reduction. One further problem with the drafting of the UNFCCC was that emissions were to be calculated on a national territorial basis, which provides scope for extreme distortions in terms of assigning responsibility. Thus the physical shifts in production and pollution under economic globalization mean that while the emissions of developed economies in Europe have been reduced, they may simply have been transferred to less developed economies with a “spatial disconnect between the point of consumption and emissions in production” (Peters et al., 2011, p. 5).

Academic and popular commentary has often located the source of the climate problem in population growth and related patterns of consumption in an expanding global economy (Newell, 2012; Royal Society, 2012). These “drivers” of climate change lie well beyond the formal remit of the climate regime. For a number of religious and cultural reasons, population is not an issue that can be comfortably addressed at the international level. Consumption, rather than population growth per se, is evidently the key driver of rising GHG emissions and is inextricably linked with the economic and cultural processes of globalization. In spite of this, the UNFCCC framing of economic issues reflects the circumstances under which it was created and contains text on the beneficial effects of open markets in a globalizing economy. Unlike the ozone protocol and other international instruments, such as the Cartagena Protocol to the Convention on Biodiversity CBD, there are no evident clashes with World Trade Organization (WTO) trade rules. The latter’s approach to the environmental consequences of trade is the assertion that if the “externalities” of production are priced into the costs of products, then open markets will provide the most efficient means of environmental protection and indeed the restriction of GHGs. There may be problems if national attempts at internal energy taxation designed to achieve emissions reduction targets lead to “border tax adjustments” to maintain the competitiveness of national industries in ways that are incompatible with WTO rules.

The final, and probably most significant, framing of the Climate Convention is noted in its preamble and reflected in the allocation of responsibilities to developed (as defined in Annex I) and less developed countries (LDCs). It is contained in the principle that the Parties should act to reduce GHG emissions according to their “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” (art.3.1). In the early 1990s, the idea that it was the responsibility of developed nations to make the first moves in reducing emissions was not as controversial as it subsequently became. The climate convention itself was sponsored by the UN General Assembly, where developing countries, grouped in the G77, constituted a large majority. It was signed during the epochal United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), more popularly known as the Rio Earth Summit, which proclaimed the norm of sustainable development. Accordingly, there could be no (p. 19) North-South agreement on international environmental questions unless the development requirements and demands for “climate justice” of the South were fully taken into account. In the negotiations that drafted the climate convention, the principal antagonism was between the Europeans, who were prepared to move immediately to emission-reduction commitments, and a reluctant United States. The question of “differentiation” between the Parties was to become the major issue that dogged the development of the regime as “the respective” economic capabilities of the Parties were increasingly subject to dramatic alteration.

The Kyoto Protocol

Despite the efforts of the EU to include a GHG-reduction commitment in the 1992 UNFCCC (a reduction to 1990 levels by 2000), the only binding obligations in the Convention were related to the important preliminary step of national reporting and the drawing up of inventories. The Convention entered into force in 1994 and its first Conference of the Parties (COP I) in Berlin took the ambitious step of mandating that a new substantive and binding agreement be negotiated by 1997. This was to become the famous Kyoto Protocol. Remarkable in many ways, it included a set of varied but binding “top-down” international commitments by developed countries to reduce their emissions by an aggregate 5.2% against a 1990 baseline by the end of the first commitment period, 2008–2012. As the price of agreement, the Clinton administration successfully managed to add a set of “flexibility mechanisms” within the Protocol to assist Parties to meet their “quantified emissions limitation and reduction objectives” (QELROs). The mechanisms included complex and innovative arrangements on emissions trading and related offset mechanisms for Joint Implementation (between developed countries) and the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The latter enabled developed countries to gain credits against their own emissions targets by funding GHG-reducing projects in developing countries—sometimes known as internationally transferred mitigation outcomes, or ITMOs. The system continues to operate, with Chinese enterprises as a major beneficiary. Inherent possibilities of fraud and sharp practice, in mis-representing the levels of reductions, achieved required the creation of an extensive and unprecedented international compliance, enforcement, and facilitation apparatus. The Kyoto approach to emissions reduction owed much to the prevailing intellectual climate in which essentially liberal, market-based solutions had long been in vogue. The Kyoto Protocol was to stimulate the United Kingdom and then the EU as a whole, contrary to its previous policies, to adopt an Emissions Trading Scheme to cover the power-generation sector. This has subsequently been through a number of difficult iterations but remains the foundation of the Union’s climate and energy policy. Elsewhere, similar carbon-trading arrangements have been established in China and North America, created and then abandoned in Australia, and are planned in no less than 39 other states (IEA, 2015, p. 23).

(p. 20) The Kyoto Protocol followed the Convention’s principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” in that it requires only developed countries to make emissions reductions. This was already controversial as economic globalization, in the wake of the ending of the Cold War, meant that the “respective capabilities” of the Parties and their relative share of global CO₂ emissions were beginning to shift in a process that was to accelerate into the new century. By the time of the ratification of the Protocol in 2005, it was evident that non–Annex I emissions would soon surpass those of the Annex I Parties. Adherence to an international agreement that appeared to penalize US industries in the face of their new competitors in China and elsewhere had already been condemned by an overwhelming majority of the US Senate in the 1997 Byrd-Hagel Resolution. The incoming administration of George W. Bush proceeded to denounce US signature of the Protocol and to actively oppose its provisions. This left the EU to lead the complex negotiation that turned the Protocol into a ratifiable and operational international instrument. By February 2005, this task was accomplished in the face of US opposition. The net effect of the Protocol in terms of actual emissions reductions was quite marginal, in terms of the scientific estimates of what was required to avoid dangerous climate change. In fact, the reductions achieved as a byproduct of the Montreal Protocol’s removal of ODS GHGs was of the order of five times greater than that achieved within Kyoto’s first commitment period (UNEP, 2011, p. 21). But as CFCs were phased out, they were often replaced by stratospheric ozone–friendly hydrofluorocarbon chemicals (HFCs). Unfortunately, these were also extremely potent GHGs. In parallel with developments in the climate convention, the Parties to the Montreal Protocol arrived at a solution to the problem in the 2016 Kigali Amendment. The claim has been made that scheduled reductions of HFCs under the Amendment will yield a reduction of 0.5°C in the temperature rise that would otherwise have occurred in the period to 2100 (UNEP, 2016).

Attempts were made to achieve a second phase of Kyoto after 2012, but in the context of the global economic downturn that began in 2008, Japan, Canada, and Russia declined to take part. The developed world commitments in Kyoto remained an important quid pro quo for any future participation in emissions reductions by developing countries, and the EU and its allies obliged with a 2011 agreement to adhere to a second phase of the Protocol. Advocates of Kyoto tended to admit its limitations in terms of the actual control of emissions, but stressed the longer-term importance of its institutional legacy.

Copenhagen (2009) and the Search for a New Agreement

Successive assessment reports of the IPCC strengthened what had become, despite some well organized climate change skepticism in the Anglo-Saxon world, an (p. 21) overwhelming case for international action to stabilize the global climate system. Essentially, the problem was political and economic, rather than one of disputed or inadequate scientific evidence: how to re-engage the United States and to involve all those developing countries, and notably China, that would soon be responsible for the bulk of anthropogenic GHG emissions but which also had very good reason, in terms of climate justice, to insist that the developed world should continue to pay for their historic responsibility for climate change. This normative minefield was made more lethal by the way in which justice claims and counterclaims tended to reflect short-term national energy interests. The domestic political barriers to international action were also significant. The first Obama administration was hamstrung by pressure from fossil-fuel interests and a hostile Congress. There was an awareness that any US administration would have enormous difficulties in passing federal legislation to comply with any future agreement. Likewise, the Chinese and Indians tended to conceptualize climate action as an economic burden that would impede their development and poverty-reduction priorities.

Some progress had been achieved in the 2007 Bali Plan of Action. This enabled the inclusion of the United States in the search for a new climate agreement by splitting negotiations into two tracks, one on the future of Kyoto and the other on the Convention, in which the United States could be persuaded to participate. As far as the developing countries were concerned, there was a significant recognition of the importance of “adaptation” alongside the matter that had previously dominated proceedings: the “mitigation” of emissions. Adaptation to the adverse effects of climate change, which were already beginning to be apparent, was a key national interest of those developing countries likely to be hardest hit and least able to cope. The other side of the Bali deal represented the first crack in the rigid wall of differentiated responsibilities and annexes between developed and developing Parties. Carefully limited “nationally appropriate mitigation actions” (NAMAs) for non–Annex I countries were now to be recognized. The intent was to conclude a new climate agreement at the 2009 COP to be held at Copenhagen, but the global economic downturn of 2008 was to diminish the prospect that governments would be prepared to make bold emissions pledges or to provide the funding necessary for adaptation and mitigation in the developing world.

The Copenhagen COP was an enormous and highly public disappointment—some said a disaster. The Parties had failed to negotiate a clean text to which the many national leaders who had been encouraged to come to Copenhagen (including the new US president, Barack Obama, and his Chinese and Indian counterparts) could sign their names. Instead, a hastily cobbled together “Accord” was produced in a conclave between the United States and the four BASIC countries. The BASIC group—Brazil, South Africa, India, and China—had been formed earlier in the year to represent the climate interests of the four large “emerging economies.” The Accord gave some pointers to the future in that it legitimized the target of keeping global mean temperatures below a 2°C (above pre-industrial levels) threshold of “dangerous” climate change. It was also determinedly “bottom-up” in its approach, inviting Parties to state publicly the kind of emissions reductions that they were willing to undertake. In the case of China and India, these (p. 22) were not cuts at all, but predictions of future improvements in energy efficiency. The development and adaptation needs of many Parties were also recognized by the creation of a Green Climate Fund (GCF). A distinguishing feature of the climate convention was its relatively open and democratic character in terms of the involvement of even small countries, especially small island states, and an army of critical nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Understandably, the cabalistic manner in which the Copenhagen Accord was drawn up was widely resented, with calls for a more open and “Party-driven” process.

In the years following the Copenhagen COP, climate diplomacy within the highly institutionalized structures of the UNFCCC moved to construct a new climate agreement that would be operative from 2020. In the interim there was to be limited participation in a second phase of the Kyoto Protocol, but it soon became clear that a new comprehensive agreement would be very different from its predecessor, involving a “bottom-up” approach to mitigation and some form of “pledge and review” process that would encourage, rather than require, Parties to make reductions in their national emissions. Such a voluntaristic strategy, mapped out originally in the Copenhagen Accord and formalized at the Cancun COP of 2010, provided a politically feasible route to engaging the relatively small group of major emitters, including the United States and the BASIC countries. By 2013, the United States and China alone accounted for around half of total global CO₂ emissions, and the EU, which pressed for a more robust agreement, accounted for a diminished share of about 11%. The bases of a new agreement were set out in the “Durban Platform” of 2011, which replaced wording on national commitments with the much looser term “intended national contributions” and set in motion a negotiating process to conclude an agreement at the Paris COP, to be held in 2015. The legal form of a new agreement was left open in order to accommodate the US government’s problem with a potentially hostile Congress. It is also worth noting that in contrast to the period leading up to Copenhagen, the increasing attraction of renewable energy sources, alongside horrendous levels of urban air pollution, appears to have led to a recalculation in China and elsewhere as to the costs of making “contributions.” Between 2008 and 2013, the cost of solar-power generation fell by 80% and wind power by 18% (IRENA, 2014, pp. 14–15). Widespread awareness of the increasing competitiveness of such renewable energy sources certainly assisted the negotiations for a new agreement (IEA, 2015, pp. 21–22).

In his second term, President Obama was determined to make a climate agreement part of his legacy, using executive action to cut US emissions under preexisting legislation. Climate policy also provided a cooperative element in the largely conflictual relationship with China. This yielded a November 2014 consensus between the two, expressed in the concept that contributions in the new agreement would be made “. . . in the light of different national circumstances.” This phrase was to be appended to the well-worn “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” (Paris Agreement, Art. 2.2) in a formula that allowed universal participation in mitigation efforts. By the time of the Paris COP 21, 180 countries had presented nationally defined mitigation plans.

(p. 23) After the events of Copenhagen and amidst fears that major players would simply abandon the UNFCCC, a new agreement, if it were to be legitimate, would also have to receive support from the majority of the international community. In the developed North, the extent to which the Convention and its procedures are valued in the South is often insufficiently understood. European Union policy has always recognized this, and the Union, after the setback to its leadership aspirations at Copenhagen, embarked on an active program of diplomacy to build support for a new agreement across the international system. This required the development of areas of the climate regime that are sometimes neglected when mitigation targets provide the headlines. Climate funding for both adaptation and mitigation was a critical element, and in the years after Copenhagen the structure and procedures of the GCF were elaborated. There were also funding pledges by developed countries, with the aim of reaching a reaching a $100 billion per annum target by 2020. Significant developments, to include sustainable management and enhancement, also occurred in the arrangements for forest preservation under the “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries” program REDD+. Additionally, new procedures were set out in the 2013 Warsaw Mechanism for “loss and damage” assistance for vulnerable countries subject to the impact of actual climate change. Also important in securing developing world support for a new agreement was the undertaking by the EU, virtually alone, to commit to a second phase of the Kyoto Protocol.

After the Durban COP, ongoing dialogue between the EU and around 12 small states provided the core of what was to become the “High Ambition Coalition.” As the United States and then Brazil, among others, joined in, the Coalition lent significant momentum to the final negotiation in Paris (Brun, 2016, pp. 120–121). The specifics of the Paris COP and preceding meetings demonstrated that many of the lessons arising from the previous failure at Copenhagen had been learned. In a long but transparent and inclusive process (the snappily titled Ad Hoc Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, or ADP), a usable, albeit heavily bracketed, negotiating text for the final COP at Paris was produced. This was only one part of a major diplomatic effort by France and the previous presidency, Peru, to ensure that the Paris COP would succeed. As in 2009, the COP was portrayed as an event of high political salience with preliminary interventions by the UN Secretary General and the Pope, but a repetition of the endgame at Copenhagen was avoided as heads of state and government were invited to the beginning rather than the end of the Paris meeting.

The Paris Agreement (2015)

For two decades, the objective of the climate convention lacked precise definition, “. . . the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” (Art. 2). The Copenhagen Accord, formalized at the Cancun COP of 2010, provided a 2°C (p. 24) threshold definition of “dangerous anthropogenic interference,” but this was never sufficient to ensure the survival of small island states threatened with inundation. Their Alliance of Small Island States, AOSIS, demanded recognition of a 1.5°C threshold. To the surprise of many, this was partially achieved at Paris, where Parties agreed to hold “. . . the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature to 1.5°C” (Art. 2.1). In the same article, two other critical elements of the consensus in Paris are highlighted: the importance of adaptation, and the provision of “making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.”

Since its inception, the climate regime has been dogged by the issue of differentiation, reflecting, of course, the underlying structural inequalities of the international system and core arguments about climate justice and historic responsibilities. The Paris Agreement represents a compromise on these issues, which has facilitated a loose but comprehensive approach. There is no mention of Annex I, and all Parties are involved in mitigation; however, the detailed wording of the agreement indicates some subtle differentiation between developed countries and the rest. For example, while developed countries “should [not shall!] continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets,” LDCs and SIDs (Small Island Developing States) “may prepare and communicate strategies . . .” for low GHG development (Arts. 4.5, 4.6), while developed countries “shall” provide support for developing countries in implementation (Art. 4.5). It is also significant that in comparison to the original Convention, the agreement greatly upgrades the status of “adaptation,” giving it some equivalence to mitigation, backed up by promises on the scale of the GCF and by the provisions on “loss and damage” as a separate item from adaptation (Art. 8).

In US Secretary of State Kerry’s view, the nationally determined contributions were in themselves “a monument to differentiation,” as each country determines its “fair contribution,” according to its respective capabilities and in the light of “its different national circumstances” (ENB, 2015, p. 43). There is no defined overall emissions target similar to that set out for the developed countries in the Kyoto Protocol. Instead, the Paris Agreement is ambitious yet vague. It can be read as seeking to achieve its temperature control objectives by moving to an essentially de-carbonized global economy at some point after 2050. It states that the Parties should aim to reach “global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible” and thereafter to make “rapid reductions” so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century” (Art. 4.1). Each successive nationally determined contribution (NDC) “will represent a progression” beyond its current NDC and “. . . and represent its highest possible ambition” (Art. 4.3). The Paris Agreement contains no direct mention of emissions trading or a global carbon price. There is some reference back to the international flexibility mechanisms that were at the heart of the Kyoto Protocol. Joint action and “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes” with robust accounting rules are recognized as means to achieve NDCs. However, engagement with them by Parties is strictly voluntary, and there is even a new framework to facilitate “non-market approaches to sustainable development” (Art. 6.9).

(p. 25) This leads to questions of how the objectives of the Agreement can be met without any enforceable commitments. In reading the text, “shall” indicates a binding obligation, and some precise yet important disagreements at Paris centered on the alternative use of “should” or “may.” The binding parts of the Paris Agreement are procedural, rather than substantive, and this provides a key to understanding how it is envisaged that the new system will operate. Parties will be required to produce and communicate NDCs in a five-year cycle. These will account for “anthropogenic emissions and removals,” and there is also reference to the use of existing methods and guidance and the setting up of common time frames (Art. 4). National communications will be recorded in a public registry and subject to an “enhanced transparency framework” (Art. 13). This brings together various existing procedures within the Convention to subject national communications to expert scrutiny and review. National sensitivities to such monitoring and review activities are indicated by the stipulation that the transparency framework will be implemented in a “facilitative, non-intrusive, non-punitive manner, respectful of national sovereignty and avoid placing undue burden on parties” (Art. 13.3). There was a key disagreement between the EU, the United States, and the BASICs on the independence and extent of monitoring and verification provisions. Nonetheless, the intention to gain a clear understanding of Parties’ mitigation and adaptation actions, “including clarity and tracking of progress towards achieving Parties’ individual” NDCs, is clear. If there is to be enforcement, it will thus have a horizontal character, encouraging or shaming Parties to keep to and expand their contributions through publicity and the hope that they will be concerned to safeguard their reputation both at home and abroad.

The other crucial element in fulfilling the objectives of the Agreement is the assessment of Parties’ actions against scientific evidence. This has always been central to the operation of the climate regime, which has operated in tandem with the IPCC and has its own Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice SBSTA. What has been in question has been the “adequacy of commitments” in relation to Article 2 of the original Convention. The Kyoto Protocol failed to come anywhere near the level of reductions that were required, and the estimates of the impact of Parties’ published intended NDCs in advance of Paris yielded a mean temperature increase of 2.7°C (UNFCCC Secretariat, 2015). Now the “contributions” of Parties will need to match against the newly demanding aspirations of the Paris Agreement—a 1.5°–2° threshold for dangerous climate change. To ensure this, the Agreement mandates a “Global Stocktake” to assess progress toward achieving its purposes. This progressive element may be regarded as an important counterbalance to the voluntary nature of self-determined contributions (Brun, 2016, p. 118). The first such “stocktake” will occur in 2023 (one will be conducted every subsequent five years), and will include funding and adaptation actions, alongside mitigation. Beyond this, there is no further detail on what will be involved, except that Parties will be expected to revise their NDCs in accordance with the outcome (Art. 14). While the “stocktake” is scheduled for 2023, the Paris Agreement entered into force in November 2016, having achieved the necessary 55 ratifications, representing 55% of global GHG emissions. Much work remained to be done in “operationalizing” the terms of the Agreement and in ensuring that pre-2020 (p. 26) action on reducing GHG emissions was enhanced (ENB, 2016, pp. 36–38). Despite negotiating success in Paris, the UNFCCC with its new Agreement remains a weak and limited form of commons governance. This is especially evident if comparisons are drawn to the regime for the restoration of the stratospheric ozone layer. Unlike the latter, the Paris agreement contains no mechanisms for dealing with “free-riders.” Inadequately framed from the outset, the regime that emerged from Paris rejected the central targets and timetables of the Kyoto Protocol for a “pledge and review” system of the type that had been discussed and discarded during the negotiation of the original Convention. This appears to have been the inevitable price of a comprehensive agreement and has all the hallmarks of a system of sovereign states that rejects central direction and in which enforcement, if not impossible, is very difficult. On the other hand, it is also true that some vestiges of the Kyoto system remain in the form of common rules for transparency and in the facilitating (but not enforceable) compliance mechanism (ENB, 2015, p. 43). The novelty of the new system is that it creates a potential dynamic between domestic energy policies and international standards and aspirations: a “new logic of international climate politics” that “acknowledges the primacy of domestic politics in climate change” (Falkner, 2016, p. 1107). For better or worse, it will provide the framework for international climate cooperation for decades to come, and the outcome at Paris was a great deal more productive than many had predicted, both before and after Copenhagen. Then there were many rivals to the UNFCCC and attempts to “forum shop” by promoting other institutions, such as the APEC initiative or Major Economies Forum, which threatened to fatally undermine a universal approach within the UN system.

Arguably the most significant aspect of the Paris Agreement is in the way that it achieves one of the other functions of international environmental cooperation. It sets up generally agreed-upon norms and expectations of behavior for a future de-carbonized global economy. In the discourse surrounding previous attempts to erect a successor to Kyoto, there were constant complaints from business that governments had failed to agree on a clear framework to facilitate climate-friendly investment decisions over the next 25–50 years. The IEA claimed that the measure of success would be the “extent to which it conveys to energy sector stakeholders a conviction that the sector is destined to change” (IEA, 2015, p. 32). Paris may provide the basis for a future investment framework, but it remains to be seen how actual decisions within both public and private energy sectors will be made and the extent to which they will reflect the ambitions of Article 4. There is some encouraging evidence that despite its acknowledged weaknesses, the Kyoto Protocol was associated with a significant upturn in investment in renewable energy (IPCC, 2014).

Under circumstances where the social and economic damage wrought by the enhanced greenhouse effect is becoming manifest, the adaptation provisions of the Agreement and its promised funding arrangements are another noteworthy contribution, alongside a long-standing concern with technology transfer and its financing (Art. 10). Here the developmental trajectory of economies that previously were uninvolved, other than as recipients and critics of the failures of the Annex I countries to live up to (p. 27) their historical responsibilities, will play a huge part in the long-term achievement (or otherwise )of the Agreement’s objectives.

How the Paris Agreement Was Achieved and May Be Sustained

In seeking an explanation of how the international community managed to formulate a new climate agreement, the first resort would be to an analysis of coincident national interests. There is no doubt that the persistent scientific findings of the IPCCC and the evidence, for example, of very serious atmospheric pollution in Chinese cities led to some recalculation of national priorities, which often have been seen in terms of a balance between the economic costs and the environmental benefits of taking action. In the United States, the arrival of the Obama administration was marked by a clear reversal of the obstructionist approach of its predecessor. Having once been seen as an economic cost, climate policy came to be viewed in a more favorable light as the costs of alternatives to hydrocarbons fell and as economic gains from investment in solar and other technologies came to be more fully appreciated. The EU had long stressed the benefits of taking a progressive approach to climate policy, but from 2009 Chinese policymakers appear to have become more receptive to this view. India and some other developing countries continued to prioritize an absolute right to development and poverty reduction and to insist that the old industrialized countries no longer had a right to a diminishing “carbon space.” The fact that all could be accommodated within the new agreement arose rather obviously from its permissive nature. Governments could now simply determine what they were prepared or could afford to contribute in terms of mitigation, and there was little question of non-compliant states free-riding on the efforts of others. Contributions would be set nationally, subject to transparency and expert analysis.

While unlike many other international issues, relative military strength and hard power do not figure in climate negotiations, there is still an important respect in which shifts in structural power have affected the development of the regime. The rise of the BASIC countries (particularly China) in relation to Europe and the United States changed the nature of climate politics in a way that was graphically demonstrated by the events of the 2009 Copenhagen COP. The old “Annex I versus the rest” division was no longer tenable under circumstances in which China had become the largest emitter and many saw the future of climate politics in a G2 agreement between the United States and China or in some form of ruling “concert” of large and economically powerful emitters. Although Sino-American agreement was doubtless important, the time and diplomatic energy that was expended in meeting the concerns of a large number of small and often insignificant (in terms of the scale of their economies and emissions) states is a remarkable feature of the UNFCCC. The regime did not collapse into a deal between (p. 28) a few powerful emitters, and the Paris Agreement resists analysis in simple terms of relative power.

Normative arguments about climate justice in general and the rights and survival of small island developing states played a central role in building support and momentum for the Paris Agreement. This started with the Cartagena Dialogue, which brought together a range of developed and developing countries in pursuit of a new basis for negotiation after Copenhagen, and then continued, before and during the Paris Conference, with the High Ambition Coalition. This represents a continuation of a long-term trend in which AOSIS has played a disproportionately large part in climate deliberations. Arguments for climate justice are doubtless an important motivator in themselves, but they have been unusually potent within the climate regime. In part, this derives from its relatively “democratic” character and links to the UN General Assembly, along with the effective advocacy of some of the leaders of small island states, the Maldives at Copenhagen and the Marshall Islands at Paris. For them, climate change is a matter of national survival, as their territories face inundation with the inexorable rise of global mean temperatures and resulting sea levels.

A substantial proportion of the activity within the UNFCCC is not directly related to climate issues, but rather to the pursuit of many other symbolic causes that have reputational significance. Consider, for example, this extract from the Paris preamble: “Noting the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including oceans . . . recognised by some cultures as Mother Earth.” Or the following portmanteau clause on adaptation which should “. . . follow a country-driven, gender responsive, participatory and fully transparent approach, taking into consideration vulnerable groups, communities and ecosystems . . . guided by the best available science and, as appropriate, traditional knowledge, knowledge of indigenous peoples and local knowledge systems . . . ” (Art. 7.5).

At the end of the Copenhagen COP, the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA) Latin American states, including Cuba and Venezuela, used the occasion to make an explicitly “political” anti-imperialist point by refusing to agree the terms of the deal that had been crafted by the United States and BASIC countries. It therefore had only informal status as an “Accord.” There are numerous other examples of symbolic politics within a regime that provides ample scope because of its lengthy plenary sessions, in which all Parties make formal statements, and the large public audience, made up of NGOs and others that attend the annual COPs. While this can be irritating, if not destructive, of the real work of the UNFCCC, the politics of recognition and prestige also has a positive side. It partly accounts for the tenacity with which the EU has pursued a climate leadership role in order to burnish its credentials as a significant international actor (Bretherton & Vogler, 2006). Hosting a successful COP is also regarded as a significant indicator of national status: witness the major diplomatic effort put in by France in advance of and during the Paris COP, where climate change became one of a small number of national policy priorities.

What might be regarded as the politics of esteem between governments has provided a motor for regime development (Vogler, 2016, pp. 108–130). In the early period the (p. 29) EU attempted to shame others into action and emulation by announcing targets and timetables, pre- and post-Copenhagen, and there were other occasions, at the 2007 Bali COP, for instance, when a reluctant United States was persuaded/shamed into joining a virtuous consensus. Comparison and emulation lie behind the post-Copenhagen stress on the publication of contributions. In the absence of internationally agreed-upon targets and related enforcement, the regime has been designed to operate on the basis of peer pressure and emulation with its progressive five-year cycles, binding review processes and the “Global Stock-Take.” National reputation was always important, but it now became the intended driver of a central mechanism of the regime by which governments will, hopefully, be held accountable not only by their international peers but by their own domestic publics.

Overall, the Paris Agreement has been hailed as a revival of multilateralism after fears of collapse and a splintering of the regime in the aftermath of Copenhagen. It entered into force on November 4, 2016, but within four days the election of President Donald Trump cast a shadow over its future. On June 1st 2017 the President announced that the United States would be withdrawing from the Agreement but the other Parties responded by re-affirming their commitment, leaving the United States isolated. It remained unclear whether the Paris Agreement would henceforth be regarded as a the high water mark of a diminishing liberal international order or whether some of its more heroic assumptions about the “ratcheting up” of efforts to de-carbonize national economies and energy systems would be fulfilled over the coming decades. Equally uncertain was the continuance of the political alignments and understandings between major emitters that had, after 20 years of stalemate, made a new climate agreement possible.


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