Making an effective climate agreement: Mission impossible

Third time lucky, they say. But even though Poland is hosting the UN climate summit for the third time now, the goal still remains a mission impossible.

Intense negotiations aimed at reducing GHG emissions have been going on within the framework of the UN for almost 30 years. No other international environmental problem has been attacked with so much political, scientific and institutional effort as this one. 

However, effectiveness has been exceedingly low: Emissions are some 60% higher today than they were when the UNFCCC was adopted in 1992. Moreover, emissions rose more steeply after the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol than before, although at the time it was hailed as an innovative and effective instrument by policy-makers and analysts alike.

Analysts and policymakers have also hailed the Paris Agreement (PA) as a huge success. Beyond doubt, it was indeed a diplomatic success – but as regards the Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs) it was no success in environmental terms. Moreover, the strong support from virtually all participants – with widely differing perceptions and interests – indicates that the PA is open to a wide range of interpretations, as clearly demonstrated with negotiations on the ‘Paris Rulebook’. Just as the Kyoto Protocol was full of ‘invisible’ brackets, so is the PA.

Moreover, the making of this Rulebook has dealt essentially with processes aimed at securing transparency and comparability in reporting procedures. The crucial issues of how to reduce emissions, and how to flesh out a stronger regime in terms of enforcement and compliance, are not yet on the table. The PA certainly contains important innovative elements and ambitious goals, but these alone will not be enough to halt global warming.

Why have achievements been so modest?

There are several reasons why climate change has been labelled an extremely politically ‘malign’ or ‘wicked’ problem, exceedingly difficult to solve. First, we should note that climate mitigation is a global public good, where most of the benefits from one country’s own mitigation efforts go to other countries. Thus, a government concerned primarily with the welfare of its own citizens will have little reason for action. Moreover, any one country’s contribution to climate mitigation makes only a very small difference on a global scale.

Second, while the costs of reducing emissions are high and up-front, the benefits are both long-term and diffuse. This represents a real challenge, as policymakers tend to operate with short time-frames. Third, very costly measures will be required if emissions reductions are to have a real impact on global warming. Finally, there are strong political asymmetries, particularly between the North and the Global South, in terms of interests, priorities and not least regarding justice and fairness in burden-sharing.

Even more fundamental, in a long-term perspective, is the fact that anthropogenic impacts on the climate system can be attributed to the accumulation of unintended side-effects from a wide range of activities undertaken mostly for purposes unrelated to climate change. ‘The aggregate impact of human activities on the climate system is primarily a function of trillions of micro-decisions taken by individuals, companies and other actors, based mostly on other concerns’ (Underdal et al., forthcoming 2019).

It is well-documented that economic growth and population increase have been – and still are – the main drivers for climate gas emissions, particularly in the Global South, where emissions are increasing most sharply. Obviously, dealing with such issues is far beyond the scope of a weak, globally inclusive and voluntary environmental forum – or indeed, any other international body for that matter.

Little room for real impact

Technology may be expanding the options for increased emissions. However, it may also have a positive effect, by driving the development of renewable energy. Important here are domestic priorities related to energy security and market forces, but concern over rising climate gas emissions are also factors in the equation. On this point, the climate change regime may have a role to play, although it should not be overestimated. The same goes for expansion of quota trading.

On the whole, there is not much room for a UN-based climate regime to have a real impact on climate gas mitigation – it is more an intermediate variable compared to the basic driving forces mentioned above. That being said, as a forum for exchanging of ideas, sending signals to market actors and policymakers, mobilizing the public and providing solid information and legitimacy, COP24 may have some positive effect. True governance of mitigation trajectories, however, lies beyond its scope. That remains a ‘mission impossible’.