Paris Climate Change Agreement

U6th IB pupil Jasper Whitefield’s prize-winning entry for the Fitzwilliam College Cambridge Land Economy Essay Competition.
“The Paris Climate Change Agreement is a ‘game-changer’ and will ensure global action to limit carbon emission.” Discuss

Land Economy Essay

It is important, if not vital, to assess the potential for success of global agreements on the scale of the Paris Climate Change Agreement. Anthropogenic global warming has a scientific consensus of 90- 100%1 and is proven to cause a vast array of human impact2 meaning it is a near indisputable human made problem that needs to be resolved. Heralded at the time by the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, as ‘a game-changer’3 the agreement was an unprecedented global agreement towards climate action. The goal being to ensure global temperature rises are well below 2°C relative to pre- industrial levels as set out in Article 2 of the agreement. With 195 countries signing the deal and 144 countries having since ratified it – representing 82.92% of global emissions so far4 – the agreement has the potential to be a game-changer.

However, it must be considered in what manner the Paris Agreement is a game-changer. Defined as ‘a newly introduced element or factor that changes an existing situation or activity in a significant way’ multiple variables could determine whether the agreement is a game-changer, including size, the nature of the agreement, or its goals. Crucially, will the existence of the Paris Agreement have a substantial impact on the global effort to tackle climate change? Furthermore, it should be considered for whom the Paris Agreement will be a game-changer in comparison with other nations where the agreement will be more of a cost than causing any noticeable change.

To determine whether the Paris Agreement is a game-changer, it is essential to assess Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, henceforth referred to as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) as they are upon ratification. These are objectives submitted by every nation, with the hope that domestic mitigation measures will be pursued to achieve them5. They are the main method the Paris Agreement uses to promote limiting carbon emissions and so will be used to evaluate the agreement. These are entirely submitted by nations only, thus allowing for individual economic, political and social circumstances and are not legally binding. However due to their public nature NDCs are open to public scrutiny and a ‘name and encourage’ system is present. Nations are also prevented from ‘doubling back’ on their NDCs and so each newly submitted NDC should be more ambitious than the previous one. NDCs will be reviewed every 5 years.

Preceding the Paris Agreement, the Kyoto Protocol was the first major global agreement on combatting climate change. To consider Paris a game changer, it would have to significantly surpass the success and overcome the weaknesses of the Kyoto Protocol.

Firstly, the sheer difference in number of signatories at the time of entry into force shows the success of the Paris Agreement in comparison to the Kyoto Protocol: with Paris holding 1956 and Kyoto 847 nations respectively. This illustrates that the Paris Agreement is a game-changer in terms of the number of participants. Compared to Kyoto, Paris provided a truly global stance promoting action to limit carbon emissions. Furthermore, one of the greatest shortfalls of the Kyoto Agreement was the lack of participation by the United States and withdrawal by Canada. Thus, the inclusion of these nations in the Paris Agreement would make a substantial difference to its effectiveness, especially when it is considered that the US is the world’s second largest carbon dioxide emitter as of 20148.

Another game-changer in relation to the Kyoto Protocol is the explicit mention of carbon sinks in the Paris Agreement. This allows nations with large carbon sinks (forests), such as Russia and Canada, to receive credit for their land use. The ability to include land use in an NDC serves to encourage nations to utilise it. It also promotes a long-term goal of the Paris Agreement of having a carbon neutral global economy by 2050 – carbon sinks being essential to achieve this.

The media also play an important role in making the Paris Agreement a game-changer. If the media can use announcements related to the Paris Agreement to educate the global population of the dangers climate change possesses then the pressure needed to ensure policy makers fulfil their NDCs will be present. The planned meetings every five years to evaluate the success of NDCs and subsequent media coverage will be crucial in maintaining the planned ‘name and encourage’ enforcement system. If the media can generate significant interest and highlight the importance of preventing climate change, this could significantly increase the effectiveness of the agreement, making it a game-changer in its ability to reduce carbon emissions.

Finally, the Paris Agreement is a game-changer for certain nations when compared to others. For nations that require global action immediately to mitigate its impacts, the Paris Agreement is very much a game-changer when compared to a nation that will not feel the immediate effects of climate change. The countries that will feel the greatest immediate effect of climate change are low-lying islands in the tropics and sub-Saharan African nations. The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) composed of 44 nations pushed to have the previously used temperature goal of 2°C lowered to 1.5°C in their opening statement9. This was met by the end of the Paris conference. Therefore, nations such as the low-lying island Tuvalu, which would be susceptible to a greater than 1 metre rise in sea level, would consider the agreement a game-changer in terms of the goals set. Meanwhile nations such as Denmark, which is ranked most likely to deal with any effects of climate change10 would not regard this as game-changing.

There are, however, many reasons that may suggest that the Paris Agreement will not be a game- changer. Firstly, the inherent issue of global multilateral policy is that nations may choose to act in self-interest. As such if there is no benefit for a nation to take part, then it is likely that they won’t – or they will to varying degrees of commitment. Basic game theory analysis, composed of the decision of one altruistic nation and one realist nation will result in the optimum outcome being for the altruistic nation to follow their NDC and the realist nation to avoid theirs. The altruistic country will follow an NDC despite the cost, while a realist nation will avoid it to prevent a cost. Because of the Paris Agreement not being enforced beyond a ‘name and encourage’ system, there is no cost to countries that avoid fulfilling their NDC obligations. As such it will be highly likely to find nations not following their NDC. This has already been shown to occur – with claims that Sweden, Germany and France are the only EU nations to pursue the Paris climate goals in accordance with agreements made during the Paris agreements11. A potential reason being that because climate change will not affect these nations soon there is no incentive due to the lack of a short-term benefit. This appears to be found most prominently in upper income group nations. Of the 27 nations ranked most likely to be least vulnerable to climate change, all are in the upper income group10. If a correlation is found and replicated, then it is highly unlikely that the Paris climate change will be a game-changer in limiting carbon emissions due to non-compliance among developed countries. The free rider problem must also be considered. If one nation chooses not to meet its NDC, others may be encouraged to do so or reduce their contribution so that they are not relatively worse off.

Global warming is an issue resulting from the tragedy of the commons. With the Earth being a shared- resource system, if nations act with self-interest, say by releasing carbon into the atmosphere, it has the potential to result in the degradation of this resource. Which it does. As the Earth’s resources on the scale of nations are relatively non-excludable and non-rivalrous, overconsumption can occur. In the free market this issue is unsolvable as it is an example of market failure. As such market intervention is needed to prevent the overconsumption of the Earth’s resources, which takes the form of the Paris Agreement. The millennium goals can be used to determine whether multilateral policy can be used to overcome market failure in relation to Paris due to similarities in size and nature. The most successful millennium development goal was MDG1 – reduction in poverty. Some choose to argue that this was the result of free market effects acting on China, whose substantial economic growth certainly supported poverty reduction endeavours12. If this is to be the case, then the Paris Agreement may not be effective as free market forces will not encourage the limiting of carbon emissions. There was the potential for the Paris Agreement to create an economic based solution that could be enforced beyond ‘name and encourage’, creating a system where it would be economically beneficial for nations to commit to ambitious NDCs. This would have taken advantage of free market forces acting in the new system to drive the limiting of emissions. Instead nations must bear an economic cost if they wish to follow the Paris Agreement.

The Paris Agreement will always be subject to political opportunism. If the leader of a nation feels it would be beneficial to sign the Paris Agreement for short term political gain, the issue of nations signing the Paris Agreement with no intention of fulfilling the obligations occurs. This issue is exacerbated by the lack of stringent punishment for non-compliance. Furthermore, there is an issue with the change of policy makers over time. The Paris Agreement is set to last at least 100 years, and so the issue arises as to whether future policy makers will continue to commit to upholding their nation’s agreement. Evidence of this issue has already surfaced: most prominently in the US. After signing the agreement, President Barack Obama was succeeded by President Donald Trump who stated in his election campaign that he would ‘cancel’ the agreement13. Thus, the politics involved in making and maintaining multilateral policy may cast seriously doubt on the notion of Paris being a game-changer.

In conclusion, the Paris Agreement cannot be called a game-changer. Although issues of the preceding agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, such as its size, may have been resolved, there is not enough of an improvement. For example, there is not a sufficient level of checks and balances to fully ensure nations uphold their agreement and fulfil their NDC. The enforcement system of ‘name and encourage’ will not do much to persuade nations to uphold their agreement, as learned with Canada and the Kyoto Protocol. The Paris Agreement is effectively all carrot and no stick. While altruistic nations will comply, along with those soon to be directly affected, realist nations will use the system to maximise their wellbeing. Thus, the cost to these self-interested nations means it is highly likely for non-compliance to occur. Furthermore, it must be remembered that the ‘name and encourage’ system was heavily influenced by the need for Congressional approval in the US. While the US may be the 2nd largest carbon emitter it is also now toying with the idea of withdrawing from the agreement that had its fundamentals shaped around accommodating the US. The Paris Agreement may have been better served with the view that the overall reduction in carbon emissions would have been greater because of increased punishments, with or without the US. However, then there would be the potential for more nations not wishing to take part due to the punishments.

The crux of the matter is whether nations will fulfil and continue to improve upon their NDCs. As of now, even the submitted NDCs will not reach the goal whether they are fulfilled or not. Thus, it must be concluded that it is too early to tell whether the Paris Agreement will be a game-changer and will ensure global action to limit carbon emissions, as only time will tell whether nations will fulfil their agreement.

Jasper Whitefield, U6th IB pupil



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