The Paradox of Paris: How a Successful Climate Agreement Could Have Inadequate and Nonobligatory Emissions Reduction Targets

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius talks to delegates during the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn, Germany, June 1, 2015.

The parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, are meeting in Bonn, Germany, June 1 through June 11 to continue negotiating a new international climate agreement. They will reconvene in Paris in December to finalize it. A key aspect of the eventual agreement—which will apply to both developed and developing countries—will be a set of national targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

With little time remaining to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, there is tremendous pressure on negotiators to usher in an era of effective international climate cooperation. Yet as the contours of the agreement come into focus, it is increasingly apparent that the emissions reduction targets—which will be nationally determined rather than internationally negotiated—will be collectively insufficient to curtail dangerous climate change. It also is becoming clear that the agreement will not legally require countries to meet the targets.

Paradoxically, these results would not entail the failure of the agreement. An insufficient set of national targets is compatible with a successful overall outcome in Paris, and a nonbinding set of national targets may actually be necessary for it.

An inadequate first wave of emissions reduction targets but a potentially effective climate regime

Over the past year, world leaders have shown a new political will to address climate change. The United States, for example, announced an aggressive but achievable emissions reduction target—26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025—and is working to implement the Clean Power Plan, which will dramatically reduce emissions from the power sector. China, to take another example, committed to peak carbon emissions by around 2030 in a historic announcement this past November. There has been significant progress on climate finance as well, with 33 countries pledging more than $10 billion to the nascent Green Climate Fund, which will help developing countries adapt to climate change and transition to pathways of low-carbon growth.

Despite these developments, which have provided momentum toward a strong agreement in Paris, it is anticipated that the national emissions reduction targets submitted to the UNFCCC this year will be collectively inadequate to deliver climate safety. The Paris agreement, however, can still be successful. This is because the parties have the opportunity to ensure that the national emissions reduction targets—which have end dates of 2025 or 2030—are only a first wave in a succession of increasingly ambitious national targets to rein in global warming.

Time, of course, is dwindling. According to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels—which is the U.N.-agreed target—would entail a 40 percent to 70 percent reduction in emissions from 2010 levels by midcentury and net-zero emissions by 2100.

To facilitate a new climate regime that is effective, the Paris agreement should set frequent cycles for improving national targets. It also should establish frequent and thorough reviews of national progress. These are among the issues set for discussion in Bonn—and in the run-up to Paris—that will help determine the ultimate success of the final agreement.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who will preside over the Paris meeting, has referred to the agreement not as a destination but as a “springboard.” It is within the power of the parties to make it a springboard to adequate climate action, rather than one to the failure of the UNFCCC.

A legally binding agreement, potentially with nonbinding national emissions reduction targets

Miguel Arias Cañete, EU Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy, has joined Foreign Minister Fabius in his effort to manage expectations of what the first wave of national targets can achieve. Despite this pragmatism, however, the European Union has been publicly idealistic on the issue of whether the national targets should be legally binding. It is generally held that the core agreement will be binding under international law, but the European Union maintains that the national targets should be legally binding as well.

Although well intentioned, this is a potentially self-defeating position. An agreement with legally obligatory targets for emissions reductions could threaten the participation of some of the world’s major emitters. It also is possible that such an agreement would encourage conservative rather than ambitious targets.

In the case of the United States, an agreement with legally binding targets would likely require the consent of a supermajority in the Senate, which is doubtful in the current political environment. Given this conspicuous legislative reality, there has been little need for other countries to publicly oppose legally binding targets as the Paris meeting approaches. Both India and China, however, have a record of resisting emissions reduction targets that are obligatory under international law.

Because of this negative effect on participation, an agreement with legally binding emissions reduction targets is an unlikely outcome of the Paris meeting. Still, the European Union publicly adheres to its position, which, on its face, is the one that champions accountability and seriousness of purpose. It is difficult, however, to hold a party accountable if it is absent. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol—which had legally binding targets—now covers only a fraction of world emissions. Canada withdrew from it; Japan, New Zealand, and Russia declined to participate in its second commitment period; and the United States never sent it to the Senate for consent.

The Paris agreement would do better to subsume the world’s emissions in a nonpunitive international system that encourages rapid decarbonization and to establish accountability through transparent reviews of national and collective progress toward the goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

With the Paris meeting now only six months away, it is time to set realistic expectations among the public and the negotiating parties. The UNFCCC will still have plenty of controversies to navigate—such as how to differentiate between developed and developing countries, how to articulate a long-term goal for climate adaptation, and how to give vulnerable countries assurances of financial support—on its way to establishing what could be the first effective climate agreement. 

Gwynne Taraska is a Senior Policy Advisor at the Center for American Progress, where she works on climate and energy policy.

Thanks to Ben Bovarnick, Cathleen Kelly, and Pete Ogden for their comments on this column.