Problems with the Paris Agreement

International climate change agreements formed under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have strived for decades for states to collectively commit to emissions reductions targets, which has proven to be an extremely onerous undertaking. 

Different national interests and disparities in states’ economic development resulted in the implementation of a “common but differentiated responsibilities” principle, which granted developing nations the flexibility to increase their emissions while more developed nations were expected to reduce theirs. The first legally-binding agreement on this was the Kyoto Protocol (1997), wherein member states committed to emissions reductions equivalent to 18 percent below the emission levels in 1990. Nations such as China and India, which, at this time were undergoing fast-paced development, were not included in these commitments, which resulted in the U.S. refusing to ratify in 2001.

After much negotiation, a new climate agreement which included all nations was formed under the UNFCCC in Paris in 2015. This was seen as a positive step for the climate, but the Paris Agreement’s structure and its ability to tackle climate change have proven to be inadequate at best, and calamitous to the environment in actuality.

What does the Paris Agreement say?

As stated in Article 2, the Paris Agreement is aimed at “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognising that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change”. However, the Agreement took a unique approach to achieving this – rather than setting legally-binding targets for emissions reductions, all states involved were required to set “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) and undertake “ambitious efforts” which would “represent progression over time” to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change. 

Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement does not aim to achieve multilateral uniformity in all states’ emissions reductions but grants these decision-making powers to the states individually. Its NDC approach and “bottom up” structure is imperative to understanding the Paris Agreement’s acknowledgement of national sovereignty, as these allow states the flexibility to determine their own objectives for emissions reductions and climate-change measures based on their economic makeup and developmental stature. 

Why is the Paris Agreement problematic?

Article 4 (3, 9) and Article 14 of the Paris Agreement state that the “nationally determined contributions” of each state must be reviewed and increased every five years in regular “stock takes” and “each Party’s successive nationally determined contribution will represent a progression beyond the Party’s then current nationally determined contribution”. The volitional nature of the Paris Agreement relies on an Enhanced Transparency Framework, which allows it to function as a soft procedural agreement, meaning that parties must hold each other responsible instead of a legal compliance mechanism. The setting of targets by states themselves and reporting on their progress is mandated under the Paris Agreement, but the strictness and willingness to set and reach these targets is completely voluntary. This voluntary mechanism lacks cogency on both commitment and enforcement, and forgoes environmental integrity. These articles of the Paris Agreement promote a problematic incentive for states to act in their own national interests and to set their initial targets low in order to better facilitate an increase of these targets in five years’ time. 

Statistics indicate that there was an increase of 1.7 percent in global carbon emissions in 2017, and 2.7 percent in 2018 despite the implementation of the Paris Agreement. It is clear that many more economically developed states are failing to take adequate responsibility for their destructive influence on the changing climate, and set extremely weak NDCs to combating climate change. Some states (such as Singapore) also misrepresent their development status in order to continue to pollute. Analysis of the 184 pledges set for 2030 revealed that up to seventy-five percent of these are insufficient. Large emitters such as China and India are set to have even higher emissions by 2030, and the second largest emitter, the U.S. (although it withdrew from the Agreement under the Trump administration and rejoined under the Biden administration), also submitted a pledge which was too low. There are absolutely no consequences for those who fail to meet targets, misrepresent the state’s developmental status, or leave the Agreement (as seen in the case of the U.S.), which highlights not only the lacklustre nature of the Paris Agreement, but the unadulterated complacency and exploitation of the Agreement by member states.

What does this mean for the environment?

It is worth noting that even if all governments actually met their targets set in the Paris Agreement, it is calculated that the world would still experience 3°C of warming. However, this warming is likely to be even greater since most countries are not taking adequate action to achieve their targets. As such, the Paris Agreement’s NDC approach, which is aimed at respecting national sovereignty, encourages states to act in their own self-interests and disregard the Agreement, which is having an adverse effect on the climate.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in order to reach a trajectory which would limit the rise in the global average temperature to 1.5°C or 2°C, the global economy must reduce carbon emissions in order to achieve fifty percent less by 2030, and net-zero carbon by 2050, after which it must go carbon-negative. The changes required to meet these targets are sizeable, and require governments to act on a larger and more accelerated level than they currently are.

The changing climate is an issue which affects all of humanity, no matter their politics, nationality and beliefs. The Paris Agreement has already demonstrated itself to be an extremely inadequate mechanism for combatting climate change, and now, six years on, countries must face consequences for their lack of commitment and reciprocity, or the Agreement must be replaced.

What could be changed?

Creating international climate agreements with strong incentives for states to participate in is undeniably difficult. The central flaw of the Paris Agreement is its NDC approach to reducing emissions, which has been severely undermined by states’ self-interest, and has become detrimental to tackling climate change. A mechanism is needed to quicken the pace of climate action taken by governments, whilst also providing them with incentives to participate fully in the climate change prevention process.

Perhaps states can accomplish more collectively, rather than acting independently (as with the NDC approach of the Paris Agreement). Structural change is of paramount importance if an effective international climate change treaty is to be created, and a voluntary agreement should be discarded in favour of one that has visible incentives for countries to participate, reach targets, and to remain members of such a treaty. 

For future international climate change treaties, a “club” model would be beneficial, as nations that do not participate may be penalised or excluded at a low cost to club members. Reforming the Paris Agreement into a “climate club” may be a useful strategy to tackle the problems of climate change and to discourage states’ self-interested actions, whilst also promoting their shared responsibility in climate change action, which would be a welcome amelioration during this challenging period of extreme climate change.


by Molly Wallace

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