Why Paris Worked: A Different Approach to Climate Diplomacy

A more flexible strategy, a willingness to accept nonbinding commitments, and smart leadership by the French all helped secure a climate deal in Paris. The real work lies ahead, but Paris created a strong, if long overdue, foundation on which to begin building a carbon-free future.

Why did Paris work when almost everything before it failed? The central answer lies in a new style of international cooperation, one that has enabled 195 countries to formally adopt an agreement that is likely to have a real impact on the emissions that cause climate change, as well as on how societies adapt to the big shifts in climate that are coming.

The contrast of Paris with the past could not be starker. The 1992 Rio framework to get serious climate diplomacy going was the right approach, but diplomats and climate activists steered that framework off the rails, and for 23 years — until now — they achieved very little. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was so riddled with flaws that it had essentially no impact on emissions. The 2009 climate negotiations in Copenhagen ended in acrimony and recriminations.

U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres shakes hands with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at Paris talks. GETTY IMAGES

Now, instead of setting commitments through centralized bargaining, the Paris approach sets countries free to make their own commitments. These “nationally determined contributions” are a starting point for deeper cooperation that will unfold over time. Once the Paris agreement enters into force and is fully in motion, around the year 2020, each nation will be expected to adopt a new pledge every five years in tandem with periodic overall efforts to take stock of how the group of nations is doing.

This pledge-and-review system helped transform climate diplomacy from the gridlock and impotence of the past, and it did so because it created flexibility. That made it easier for national governments to tailor their commitments to what they know they can deliver at home. Frankly, most of the world’s emissions come from countries that aren’t centrally worried (yet) about global climate change. Take China, the world’s biggest emitter. Its leaders have learned more about the dangers of unchecked climate warming, and that has made the country a bit more willing to act. But the nation has other much more pressing priorities — like clearing the urban air of smog. And India, another big emitter is also mainly focused on priorities other than global warming, such as making the nation’s power grid more reliable.

This pledge-and-review system transformed climate diplomacy from past gridlock by creating flexibility.

The pledging approach lets these countries offer packages of policies that align with their self-interests, while also doing something to slow the growth of global climate pollution. When you look closely at the politics of the United States you see a similar story — outside the “blue” coastal states, most of the nation is not deeply concerned about climate change. One of the reasons that past efforts to address this problem failed is that they were orchestrated around the idea that fixing global warming requires a treaty focused on greenhouse gases. The new approach, by contrast, is organized around the idea that every country has its own national interests and needs the flexibility to align what it does globally with what is doable locally.

Eventually a much more integrated global treaty will be needed to make major cuts in greenhouse gas emissions — one directly focused on the global goals. But flexibility offers a way to get started and build confidence that, in time, will beget more confidence and a willingness to do more. This is the same theory, with a similar approach, that guided the creation of the highly effective system for international coordination of trade policy through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and, since 1995, the World Trade Organization (WTO). Trade diplomacy began in the 1940s with simple, self-enforcing agreements that aligned with national interests; through successive rounds of bargaining those national policies were ratcheted forward and integrated. Easier problems were tackled first, building confidence that made it possible to tackle harder diplomatic challenges. The Paris agreement moves the world in that direction.

There were many other sources of flexibility that also helped. Most of the Paris outcome, including the national pledges, is not strictly binding. Quite apart from whether the concept of binding international law is an oxymoron, the nonbinding status of commitments has been liberating because there is a well-known tradeoff between legal status and the precision and ambition of commitments. If commitments are strictly binding, then countries will offer only conservative promises, which is one reason the Kyoto Protocol failed. Less binding commitments, by contrast, will have more detailed content and precision, which is what’s really needed at this stage.

Another source of flexibility was the fact that many countries, long before Paris, were already working on the climate problem in smaller groups outside the United Nations. There were small groups of countries focused on forests — the area where the most progress in cutting emissions has been made in recent years. Other groups worked on the Arctic. Still others, with overlapping membership, are making tangible progress in cutting short-lived climate pollutants, such as soot and methane. Most striking, in my view, was an announcement by the countries that account for most of the world’s spending on public sector energy research and development to double their investment.

The French hosts were the first to say that Paris was a milestone in a process, not an end in itself.

All this flexibility didn’t clear the political land mines of past efforts to cooperate on climate change. The least developed and most vulnerable countries in Paris were still rightly concerned that they get special treatment since they are bearing the brunt of climate impacts that they did not cause. The oil exporting countries, led by Saudi Arabia, remained keen to make this agreement as ineffective as possible, since success could spell trouble for their lifeblood.

Division of the world into developed and developing countries — a concept enshrined in the 1992 framework convention and a regular feature of most modern global environmental agreements — cast a shadow over almost every discussion in Paris, since developing countries are determined to see developed nations bear most of the cost. But flexible pledges meant that nations from both sides of the divide could take actions in Paris without sacrificing the symbolic need to pretend that the bright line created back in 1992 hadn’t dimmed. In reality, the world has moved on. The emergence of rapidly growing “middle-income” countries — such as China, Brazil, and Korea — has changed the facts on the ground. Slowly, climate diplomacy has woken up to that reality.

To be sure, there were many other handmaidens of success in Paris, especially the French hosts who made success on their turn a national priority. They invested resources in the conference, but more importantly they had a strategy — one that revolved around flexibility rather than trying to shoehorn a lot of complex bargaining into a single, centralized binding agreement. They were the first to say that Paris was a milestone in a process, not an end in itself. And they also had a sense of what was feasible — a plan B (and plans that ran deeper in the alphabet) in case things turned sour. The contrast with the Danish hosts and the secretariat that managed the Copenhagen process could not have been starker.

Good hosting by the French helped to build good will — and focused minds on the harmful consequences of failure — and that was on display in many ways. A deal on climate finance — which in Copenhagen had been set at $100 billion per year of new money by 2020 — could have easily blown up the talks, with both donors and recipients having strong incentives to hold out for the best deal. Good will and the costs of failure for all sides helped focus minds on an agreement that did little beyond what was already happening — with $100 billion per year as the floor for new money. All the details that would make these commitments workable, such as accounting systems, were pushed into the future.

There’s been a lot written about Paris in recent weeks. Let me focus on a pair of items that has garnered a lot of attention for the wrong reasons, plus a pair of sleepers.

As someone who has watched this process from the beginning in the late 1980s, the focus on “loss and damage” from climate change has been wrongheaded. For years there have been efforts to create a mechanism that would assign liability and damages from climate change, and from the beginning these have been a political non-starter. The numbers are too huge, and the ability to link cause and effect too imperfect, for a liability scheme to work.

Even a realistic crash program to cut emissions will blow through a 2-degree ceiling.

The compromise reached in Paris is more subtle but also more practical. There is no formal mechanism for assigning liability, but there is agreement on the need to help the poorest and most vulnerable nations brace themselves for massive changes in climate. The big question going forward is how to spend resources wisely on this task. In my view, this is the most urgent and important question facing the climate diplomats. It is a topic where grandstanding is easy, even as what matters are the practical details of how to help the most vulnerable in fair, just, and effective ways. The complexity of the task is like development itself.

The other overplayed topic was the emergence of the “ambition coalition” — a big group of nations that pretended to seek the most ambitious agreement possible when, in fact, little held them together except slogans. This coalition favored strong language around the goal of stopping warming at well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, ideally at 1.5 degrees. Looking at the feasibility of these goals was one of the tasks of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) panel on which I served for the last five years. That experience convinced me that warming probably can’t be stopped at those levels — the world has dithered for too long and must now brace for the consequences. Even a realistic crash program to cut emissions will blow through 2 degrees; 1.5 degrees is ridiculous. New goals are needed.

After Paris, there will be a flood of academic papers about these goals. Already there has been a lot of diplomatic self-celebration about an agreement that enshrines them into international law. Some countries, such as the low-lying island nations that could be flooded from rising seas, demanded bold goals as a condition of their participation in Paris. That the rest of the world went along is, in part, a sign that more countries recognize what the science is saying ever more clearly: Climate change, even at low levels, is a very serious problem.

Yet nobody within the official process has an incentive to state the truth about what is achievable. Because these goals are collective, an “ambition coalition” can pretend to favor them — no single member will be held accountable for bold-sounding goals that have little basis in reality. Even the IPCC, which should have been speaking truth to policy in its final Summary for Policy Makers, has no blunt statements about the impracticality of these goals. That’s because the IPCC’s summary, like the Paris agreement itself, is approved essentially by consensus — a method for making decisions that favors oblique language and a high ratio of bold pronouncements to practical realities. Yet the truth matters, because this agreement is now organized around goals that are not achievable, which will make the periodic stocktaking difficult to do with honesty. It will also make it harder for policy makers to put the necessary focus on the huge needs for adaptation that are on the horizon.

The next few years will tell whether Paris was a flash in the pan or a real shift to a more effective strategy.

Many issues remain to be resolved post-Paris. One is the question of how nations will actually know what others are doing. Pledge-and-review is a long overdue way to get started with cooperation. But making that cooperation much deeper, with much more costly controls on emissions, will require the ability to assess whether each nation is doing its part and linking together the different national efforts into a more integrated, collaborative set of international agreements. Most of the details for how that will be done were deferred in Paris, and fleshing out a system for transparency is one reason why the “after Paris” process will be more important than the Paris meeting itself.

Looked at one way, the Paris accord — for all the hoopla — is at this point far from a serious scheme for deep international cooperation. The agreement enters into force if a minimum of 55 countries accounting for 55 percent of world emissions ratify the accord — a far lower threshold than most other international treaties. In fact, the agreement should be seen as a down payment on a system that is designed to come into force rapidly, and that’s the best that can be hoped for right now. In future climate agreements, one of the quickest ways to assess the depth of the effort is to look at these “entry-into-force” provisions — if they are sophisticated and difficult to satisfy, then that will reveal a real effort by countries to create an agreement that holds all of its members accountable. Achieving that kind of cooperation in a forum of nearly 200 countries will be hard, which is why most serious efforts are still likely to come from smaller groups — such as the U.S.-China bilateral process announced in November 2014.

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Many commentators have been noting how hard everyone worked in Paris. That’s right, but when viewed from a distance it is clear that the Paris agreement was actually relatively easy to reach. Most of the work was done in the last six months — especially in the month or so prior to the conference and at many espresso-fueled meetings in the cloisters of the Paris conference center. I find it amazing that environmental diplomats tend to think they can get a lot done over short periods of time. When you look at other areas where cooperation is much deeper, like on economic matters or arms control, negotiation rounds run much longer and are more focused on substance.

On the road beyond Paris, it will be very hard — yet essential — for diplomats to build the machinery that will make deeper agreements possible in the future. Too much attention has been focused on the agreement itself, a modest but useful 11-page document. More should concentrate on the 20-page detailed “decision” that was adopted alongside it and that outlines what countries should do once their diplomats get some sleep.

The next few years are crucial in determining whether Paris was a flash in the pan or a real shift toward a more effective strategy. I am optimistic — an unusual role for me since, for 20 years, I have written a lot about why serious climate cooperation is hard to achieve and why most of what’s been tried was bound to fail. Paris is different. But success on the road from Paris is far from assured. It must be earned; confidence must be built.