Heads of State and Government at COP21, in Paris, France on November 30, 2015
By Narendra Modi (PM at COP21 in Paris) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
After two weeks of discussions the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21) ended December 12th with the passing of a climate change deal signed by almost 200 nations and the agreement has rightfully been called a “landmark.” It represents a departure from previous agreements by extending the responsibility of fighting climate change to all countries, not just developed nations. With this, according to Megan Bailey, the “agreement includes commitments from not only over 90% of the sources of current emissions, but from the nations where emissions growth is occurring.”

Each country presented their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), explaining how they plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2025/2030. To make sure that countries follow through with their INDCs, the climate agreement requires regular meetings every five years where countries can report on their progress and update their INDCs.

While undeniably a breakthrough, the Paris climate accord can be seen as mainly a diplomatic breakthrough. According to Joern Huenteler, the agreement “does not contain any new concrete commitments on mitigation targets or measures,” and, furthermore, it has “ruled out for the foreseeable future the option of having any emission reduction commitments that are legally binding under international law.” Instead, it relies on the expectation that its system of self-reporting and meetings every five years will create peer pressure that forces countries to comply with their INDCs.

While a system based on international peer pressure may seem unlikely to succeed, Megan Bailey reminds us  “that every agreement made at the international level is upheld voluntarily.” Additionally, peer pressure together with ongoing diplomacy and norm setting has resulted in “at least one success story, the Montreal Protocol, which motivated the globe to protect the ozone layer.”

In regards to the Paris agreement’s long-term effects, Joern Huenteler believes it “is hugely important as a moral statement and restores the credibility of international negotiations on climate change.” As for whether the effects of peer pressure that worked so well with the Montreal Protocol can be repeated in cutting carbon emissions, only time will tell but the Paris agreement appears to have set the right groundwork for effective climate change action.


Special thanks to both Joern Huenteler, an energy specialist at the World Bank’s Energy & Extractives Global Practice and a former research fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and Megan Bailey, a Ph.D. student in public policy and a pre-doctoral fellow in the Harvard Environmental Economics Program (HEEP), for their analyses and comments on the Paris climate agreement.

Further Reading

Nations Approve Landmark Climate Accord in Paris, Coral Davenport for The New York Times

Paris Agreement – A Good Foundation for Meaningful Progress, Robert Stavins, the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government at the Kennedy School of Government, on his personal blog (An Economic View of the Environment)

Managing Correspondent

Fernanda Ferreira

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