The Paris climate agreement reached its threshold for ratification in early October and went into action November 4th of 2016. Canada and the EU were the last to join those who had already ratified the treaty ahead of its April 21st deadline; the 55 ratifying parties then totalled an estimated 55.5 percent of global greenhouse emitters. The pledge to the agreement has become a commitment to action, meaning that the question now is whether countries — America included — will fulfill their promises.
Prior to entry into force, activity of the consenting parties was limited to development of methods, procedures, and regulations for mitigating damage, adapting to climate change, and implementing financial support procedures to aid developing countries. These plans become a foundation for action beginning in November.
Although the Paris agreement is unique in several ways, global climate meetings are nothing new. The Paris meeting is only the most recent of several climate talks going back to the Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997 (after initially being proposed in 1992), which was widely considered to be a failure. After almost 25 years, much has been learned, but similar issues remain unaddressed.
The Paris agreement is arguably the most successful climate meeting thus far; its ratification by the U.S. and China, the world’s biggest polluters, was essential for its success not only because of their impact on emission levels, but because their influence encourages other countries to partake in the agreement and gives it greater consequence. Furthermore, past agreements have failed because externally imposed goals and requirements were either too ambitious or simply ignored. Developed countries frequently failed to meet requirements, continually pushing back their goals and accumulating an insurmountable “emissions debt.”
Some procedures have been augmented and improved. Countries participating in the Paris agreement offered their own ambitious goals, called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), based on what they think they are capable of achieving. Such measures connect countries to their objectives, and ensure that their goals are attainable. By eliminating a top-down approach, delegates hope this agreement will be more successful.
Vestiges of old agreements exist too. The Paris agreement lacks any strict enforcement measures and relies on international opprobrium in the hopes that the international community will positively peer-pressure others into achieving their goals and engender teamwork amongst participating countries.
Yet problems still remain. As Princeton professor Dr. Michael Oppenheimer states, the biggest issue to confront is how we will allocate the remaining atmospheric headroom, and who is going to make the emissions reductions to make that possible? With a fixed amount of atmosphere, how do we distribute the allowances for countries to pollute? In many cases, developed nations have a “negative allowance”, having already emitted a massive portion of the greenhouse gases currently in the atmosphere. If we have a fixed amount left, who gets to pollute, and how much?
How we will allocate the remaining atmospheric headroom, and who is going to make the emissions reductions to make that possible?
By instituting NDCs, the agreement dodges this central question. Implicit in this question are assumptions about the responsibility of developed nations to aid developing nations, and questions about whether or not developing countries will be allowed to use fossil fuels to achieve developed status as already developed countries did, the fairness of such an issue, and how the onus of switching to cleaner energy sources should be divided up.
The economic aspect of clean energy is vital to its adoption, and the Paris agreement has outlined several fiscal apparatuses to support the transformation. Private and public investment is needed and is being recruited to aid in the conversion to sustainable energy, but reaching international consensus will be what inspires investment and informs the public of international commitment, assuring investors of a sustainable future.
That question is where the real money is. The clock is ticking as our atmospheric allowance fills up, and the sooner our main question is answered, the sooner we can get to fulfilling our responsibilities to the earth and to each other.