Revamping International Climate Policy

September 20, 2016

Every year, representatives of 197 countries meet to engage in international negotiations and assess progress on dealing with global climate change. The inaugural ‘Conference of the Parties’ (COP) was held in Berlin, Germany in 1995; we are now three months ahead of COP-22, to be held in Marrakech, Morocco.

Considering that the COP is the world’s best effort to cooperate in the fight to mitigate climate change, it is awfully difficult to find out what goes on at these meetings. If you’ve heard anything, it’s liable to be that the COP is an annual failure – whether because a lack of ambition renders an agreement meaningless, or because too much ambition renders consensus impossible. But it has actually produced the world’s most influential decisions on international climate policy. The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997, has been the primary attempt to unify climate action internationally for the past two decades. The Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015, acknowledges the failures of Kyoto and takes global effort in a new direction.

Why have we moved on from the Kyoto Protocol? Will the Paris Agreement work better? The challenge of cooperation on global climate change mitigation can be framed as a three-part problem. First, we need broad participation in the international forum – climate change is not a problem that can be solved by just a few countries, no matter how big they are. Second, we need to ensure increasing ambition, to counteract 175 years of rising global emissions. Third, we need compliance – that is, for countries to follow through on their ambitious commitments. Lacking any one of these characteristics, the global effort will fail.

The Kyoto Protocol is most fundamentally defined by the fact that developed countries (denoted ‘Annex I’ in conference proceedings) were assigned hard national emissions reduction targets, while all other countries (‘Annex II’) were simply given the option to do so. From the start, the Kyoto Protocol’s free pass to these Annex II countries doomed the agreement on participation grounds. It was thought, however, that the Protocol had laid a foundation for rising ambition and compliance among those countries that were physically committed to emissions reductions. In practice, countries reneged on their commitments and the Protocol lost its momentum before any significant ambition (or emission reductions) could be realized. The United States signed the Kyoto Protocol but never ratified it in the Senate, so the treaty remained non-binding in the U.S. (the U.S. is the only country to have signed but not ratified the Kyoto Protocol). Canada, Japan, and Russia announced that they would not take on further Kyoto targets in 2011, and Canada formally withdrew from the Protocol in 2012.

The COP has been trying to move on ever since. The Kyoto Protocol is often referred to as a “top-down” approach: a broad strategy (hard targets for developed countries only) was settled upon first (In Berlin, at COP-1), with the lower-level details of the approach determined later (in Kyoto, at COP-3). After Kyoto crumbled, the COP began to embrace more of a “bottom-up” approach, in which individual countries get to decide exactly what they want to contribute to the fight against climate change.

This is what the Paris Agreement espouses. As of the end of COP-21 in Paris, 186 countries had submitted a “nationally determined contribution” (NDC), which is the official signal of a nation’s intentions. The Paris Agreement thus performs far better than the Kyoto Protocol did on participation grounds. However, there is very little ambition contained in the NDCs, and only time will tell whether countries will actually comply with their self-determined commitments.

A lot remains to be refined and elaborated in the Paris Agreement; this will be the primary focus of the upcoming COP-22. One hot topic will be “differentiation” – that is, how countries under relatively different circumstances (especially, e.g., with respect to wealth or economic growth) will be expected to contribute. Poorer countries are not historically responsible for climate change and therefore feel that industrialized nations should initially be responsible for climate change mitigation, at least financially. It is considered a victory that richer and poorer countries alike have signed the Paris Agreement, but maintaining cooperation and getting countries to follow through on commitments will be a major challenge.