I am excited to share our new paper on creating greater incentives for global climate action entitled: Paris is Not Enough: Why The Paris Agreement Isn’t Driving More Climate Action…And How it Could.
Summary of paper: It is widely understood that current national pledges are not sufficient to meet Paris temperature targets. Most observers believe that this "gigatonne gap" can be closed in subsequent pledging rounds through the Agreement's ambition mechanism. This is unlikely, however, because the Agreement does not create strong enough incentives to make it in countries' interests to do more than they otherwise would to reduce their emissions. For the Agreement to generate much deeper emissions cuts, it must be supplemented with stronger incentives from outside of the Agreement. This paper explores three ways that the international community can help create those incentives. First, the international community should prioritize helping countries to capture “socially beneficial” mitigation opportunities that are in their interest, even before climate impacts are considered. Second, countries should establish “climate protection” norms that set global expectations for responsible behavior. Third, countries should treat climate change like other threats to their vital interests, and use diplomatic “sticks” and “carrots” to encourage others to cooperate. Most importantly, because governments will not necessarily be inclined to pursue these strategies on their own, civil society must pressure them to do so.
Advancing Global Climate Action in a Year Without a UN Climate Conference
By Steve Herz July 27, 2020
With the COVID-19 crisis raging across the world, 2020 will be the first time in a quarter century that the world’s governments will not meet to coordinate climate action. The postponement of the annual Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is widely seen as a lost opportunity in the effort to advance the global response to the climate crisis. After all, this was supposed to be the year that countries acted on the increasingly dire warning from scientists and upped their Paris Agreement pledges. Given the urgency of the challenge, even a relatively short delay feels like a significant setback.
Now more than ever, it is clear that we need smart, aggressive, globally coordinated action to contain the unfolding damage of a rapidly warming world. With the work under the Paris Agreement largely on pause, it is worth paying closer attention to the actions that must be taken outside of the agreement to ensure its success.
No doubt, the Paris Agreement provides the indispensable framework for organizing global collaboration. But the Paris Agreement cannot do all the work on its own. To keep the worst effects of the climate crisis within tolerable limits, countries must do a lot more than they have agreed to do so far. One reason countries have not committed to do more is that the agreement creates only weak incentives for them to do so. To generate the much deeper cuts to carbon pollution that scientists say are necessary, additional incentives must come from outside the agreement.
The key question, then, is how the international community can create those incentives to supplement the agreement. Today, the Sierra Club is releasing a new report that proposes three ways. First, the international community should prioritize helping countries to capture “socially beneficial” mitigation opportunities that are in their interest, even before climate impacts are considered. Second, countries should work to establish “climate protection” norms that set global expectations for responsible behavior. Third, countries should treat the climate crisis like other threats to their vital interests and use diplomatic “sticks” and “carrots” to encourage others to cooperate.
The first step is to encourage countries to grow their economies, create jobs, and increase public health and welfare in just ways that also reduce emissions. There are numerous ways to do this, including reducing energy waste, investing in clean energy, and building better planned cities. Really, these are just smart policies and sound investments; the climate benefits are a bonus.
As countries focus on containing the pandemic and reinvigorating their economies, the immediate priority is to ensure that national recovery and international support packages are designed to seize these opportunities. The EU, for example, is making a “Green Deal” package of climate initiatives a central pillar of its €750 billion ($825 billion) recovery fund. And the World Bank has developed a “Green Stimulus Framework” to ensure that its recovery assistance also helps countries capture the benefits of decarbonization.
Here in the US, a recent Sierra Club study has found that a thoughtful stimulus package focused on green investments could create good jobs for over 9 million people every year for the next 10 years, while cleaning our air and water, increasing wages, improving community health, and fostering equity. It would also put us on pace to reduce emissions by 45 percent by 2030, the amount scientists say is necessary to avert the worst climate impacts.
Even so, simply encouraging countries to do what is in their own interests is unlikely to be sufficient—countries must also have stronger incentives to act in the global interest. One way to create those incentives is through climate protection norms. Norms are the standards of acceptable conduct that the international community expects countries to follow. They can have powerful effects on countries’ behavior, even when they are not legally enforced. Human rights are the classic example: Countries closely monitor each other’s human rights records, and countries that violate basic standards risk condemnation, sanctions, and even isolation. Similarly, international norms that define minimum expectations for acceptable climate behavior could be an important lever for raising ambition.
What might such norms look like? Three emerging possibilities are worth exploring. First, a norm could take the form of a long-term goal that all countries would be expected to meet. There is a growing expectation that countries will adopt strategies to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, in line with the IPCC’s 1.5°C (2.7° F) model pathways. Almost 80 countries have adopted such plans or committed to do so. And some, like the United Kingdom and Sweden, have integrated this commitment into domestic law. A second approach would be to establish norms that proscribe the most destructive practices. For instance, U.N. Secretary General Guterres has called for a moratorium on new coal plants, and the Powering Past Coal Alliance has sought to establish an expectation that countries will move quickly to close their existing coal power plants. A third kind of climate norm would give content to the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” and define a fair, implementable standard for determining the adequacy of each country’s actions.
While some standards are gaining traction, none have yet fully developed into a norm. That’s because countries that fail to meet them do not risk moral sanction or international condemnation. If norm entrepreneurs, largely from civil society, can establish these standards as broadly accepted moral expectations, they could create additional reasons for countries to take stronger action or to phase out their most destructive practices.
Another way to enhance incentives for greater action would be for countries to actually treat the climate crisis like other challenges to their core national interests and use their diplomatic leverage to encourage others to cooperate. In other high-priority areas of international relations, such as trade and national security, countries act assertively to counter perceived threats to their core interests. While most countries recognize that climate disruption will imperil their security and prosperity at least as much as any other foreseeable global threat, they often conduct their foreign affairs as if climate change were just another pollution problem and only a second- or third-tier concern.
Countries with the most at stake in the agreement—the most ambitious and the most vulnerable—must be willing to use their diplomatic leverage to create stronger incentives for others to ramp up their commitments over time. This includes offering positive inducements like concessional finance for countries to increase their actions and, where necessary, imposing consequences on countries that refuse to do their part. For example, the E.U. has created a powerful deterrent to backsliding by making clear that it will not join new trade agreements with countries that are not implementing the Paris Agreement. The prospect of losing preferential access to lucrative European markets caused new regressive governments in Australia and Brazil to quickly abandon their threats to withdraw. While this policy has garnered relatively little attention, it is probably the most successful piece of climate diplomacy since the conclusion of the agreement.
None of this can be negotiated within the confines of the Paris Agreement, yet all of it is crucial to the agreement’s success. Unless the agreement is supported with additional external incentives, many countries are likely to continue to do much less than is needed to avoid dire climate impacts. During a global pandemic, the world can wait a few more months for countries to put their 2030 targets on the table. But the difficult work of creating the right incentives for those pledges to be sufficient must begin today.