A milestone moment as the Paris Agreement on climate change enters into force

Editor's note:

The author worked in the Obama administration on climate policy and will attend COP22 in Marrakech. Hultman recently authored a policy brief on “The pivotal role of the next U.S. administration in delivering global climate action,” as part of Election 2016 and America’s Future—an institution-wide initiative.

Today, the Paris Agreement on climate change formally enters into force. That it is happening less than a year after the conclusion of the agreement, in December 2015, is itself remarkable. The agreement enters into force with 94 Parties having ratified and 192 Parties having signed, indicating their intention to ratify soon. The agreement’s provisions are now operational, including mechanisms designed to encourage countries to implement commitments and increase ambition over time.


Now is a good time to ask what the agreement means in the overall arc of global and national climate politics and what we might expect to emerge from it in coming years. In so doing, it is first important to note, as many others have, that the agreement itself is delivered with no guarantees. This is by design: the primary innovative feature of the Paris Agreement is its reliance on nationally determined contributions (NDCs) that individual countries generated, through their own domestic processes, in advance of the Paris negotiations last year. These NDCs are heterogeneous, and use different approaches to setting climate targets that, by definition, reflect the domestic circumstances of the countries that proposed them. In this light, the agreement is best viewed as a coordinating and reporting mechanism which, with the proper establishment of international expectations and domestic stakeholder pressures, sets incentives for countries to both volunteer ambitious targets and to deliver progressively on those targets over time. It thus seeks to establish a cycle of positive actions whereby countries set and deliver increasing ambition.

So, while the Paris Agreement itself does not guarantee the outcomes it seeks to achieve, it is unequivocally a major advance in the international and national drive to address climate change. Since Nobel winning scientist Svante Arrhenius theorized about the greenhouse effect in 1896, scientists have known about the heat-trapping properties of carbon dioxide, and subsequently learned about and quantified the impacts of many other greenhouse gases. Amid increasing concern about global environmental problems in the late 1980s, climate change became a concern among many in the scientific and policy communities, leading to a first “Framework Convention” on climate change at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Leaders tried to establish a more robust internationalized approach with the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which was, overall, not successful, other than a few bright spots; it was not a universal agreement, lacking participation from the United States, China, India, and other countries, and embodied a less viable top-down target setting mechanism. Leaders later tried an early version of the structure of the Paris Agreement in 2009 in Copenhagen, making innovations on the a broad and universal approach that became the heart of the Paris architecture.

While the Paris Agreement itself does not in any way guarantee the outcomes it seeks to achieve, it is unequivocally a major advance in the international and national drive to address climate change.

The Paris Agreement—having incorporated not only the lessons of those previous attempts, but also lessons from other international agreements and the reflection that all countries can and must contribute toward the solution of this global issue, lays a solid foundation for action—is now our best hope to keep global climate risks at reasonable levels. It provides a framework for cooperation and incentives for countries to establish a positive competition as they retool their economies toward less emitting, cleaner sources of energy, better land use practices, and improved industrial technologies and processes. It also sets a process for countries to revisit their commitments every five years, thus establishing a route to increasing ambition over time, which we know must be part of a global approach to stabilize the climate.


So we should pause to celebrate this milestone.

Then, mindful of how challenging the process will be, we must encourage countries to start taking concrete, achievable steps in the very near term that will help them deliver on their targets. This presents the biggest potential pitfall in achieving success under Paris, and it will only be workable if there is a continuing broadening of support for climate policies over time among the major emitters. On the positive side, deploying new technologies now will help continue the rapid pace of cost declines in energy technology—for example, wind costs have dropped 40 percent, solar costs have dropped 60 percent, and efficient LED lighting costs have dropped 90 percent since 2008. And as technology costs drop, it will be possible for countries to take on more ambitious targets in the future.

The Paris Agreement is significant really for the opportunity it provides to realize the promise of a low carbon future. The agreement provides the right kind of mechanism to accelerate action and facilitate global cooperation on one of the thorniest issues facing us today. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success. Making that promise a reality will require near-term action to deliver on targets by the major economies. While daunting in many ways, the positive prospect of technology cost reductions and cleaner and healthier environments, along with improvements of quality of life in even the short run, can all support a world of increasing action on climate, working under the Paris process.