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The Paris Treaty: a leap of faith, or a shot in the dark?

Unless you've been living at the bottom of a coal mine for the last three months, it's a fair bet that you'll have heard about the Paris climate treaty – about what a momentous achievement for humanity it represents, about how it was a triumph for diplomacy and optimism, about how it might just save the planet after all. You'll probably also have heard about how it's far too little too late – a toothless document that will do little to slow our lockstep march towards oblivion, a mere rearranging of the deckchairs on the Titanic.

With all this disagreement and discord flying around, you could be forgiven for feeling a little perplexed. I myself spent the weeks following the Paris agreement oscillating wildly between elation and despair. Was Paris a disaster? Or a triumph? Well, as with so much in the maddeningly byzantine world of climate and energy, the answer is a little more complicated. But the good news is – although it might be hard to see it at first glance – the Paris Agreement does herald a genuinely new way of framing global responses to climate change.

Happy times in the COP21 tent

Happy times at the Paris negotiations

The fact is that the Paris treaty is both far better than anyone had any right to expect, and woefully insufficient. It really was a triumph of the diplomat's art – not only bringing almost every nation on the face of the planet together in agreement, but also getting them to agree to a surprisingly aggressive warming target of 1.5˚C. For climate wonks like myself, starved of good news for so long, this was cause for much tearful rejoicing.

But then you read the text of the treaty itself, it all seems so... anaemic. Where are the binding national emissions targets? Where are the punitive measures for free riders and scofflaws? Where's the strong commitments to carbon pricing, or cap and trade, or limits to the extraction of fossil fuels? At first glance, there's nothing in the Paris treaty to prevent nations carry on acting in their own selfish interests, guzzling all the carbon they can, as fast as they can get their hands on it. So we're doomed!

But wait. If the COP21 treaty had mandated swingeing emissions cuts, there's no way it would have been passed by the nearly 200 nations who sent negotiators to Paris. The Kyoto treaty of 1997 was based around legally-binding national carbon targets, and it was a disaster. The lesson of the last twenty years of climate talks is that nations will continue to act primarily on their own narrowly-defined self-interest – and no piece of paper can force them to do otherwise, “binding” or not.

Sad times at the Copenhagen collapse

The true power of the Paris treaty, it turns out, is not that it represents a breakthrough in tough new policies on climate change. It's that it heralds a change in perspective – a new way of motivating nations to undertake the hard work of addressing climate challenges, and assessing how well they're doing.

This shift in perspective moves the locus of climate action away from well-intentioned, legally-binding, ultimately-meaningless international agreements such as Kyoto, and put it squarely on the shoulders of the individual states. The architects of the Paris treaty recognised that the UNFCCC will never be able to decree global laws or levy emissions penalties. It simply does not have the power to tell national governments what to do, or punish them when they don't comply. Nations themselves will have to volunteer to take action, and therefore meaningful change will have to start at the level of voluntary national policy.

This is where the secret weapon of the Paris treaty comes into play. Instead of the blunt carrot-and-stick-except-without-the-carrot approach of Kyoto, Paris has a far more subtle tool for motivating action: peer pressure.

The treaty contains a broad, aspirational goal – limiting warming to well below 2˚C by 2100. It got everyone to agree that a 2˚C world is worth achieving, and it got everyone to commit to the creation of national policies congruent with this goal. It lays out common standards by which these voluntary national policies can be compiled into a collective database, allowing for transparency, comparison, and verification. It sets a timeline for submissions to this database, so that nations will have to submit their commitments together and according to shared criteria. But, crucially, it doesn't tell everyone what those policies should be.

The theory is not just that people (and nation states) don't like being told what to do. It's that people (and, hopefully, nation states) don't like being the odd one out. The database of national commitments means that the efforts of each nation can quickly and easily be compared. This is the brilliant conceptual leap of Paris: to create a panopticon of climate policy, where everyone is being watched, everyone is clear on who has made what commitments, and – most importantly – whose commitments are and aren't being met.

When I gave up smoking, the thing that motivated me most powerfully was that I had told everyone I was giving up smoking. My friends could congratulate me when I did well, and silently upbraid me with meaningful looks when my willpower failed me. Sure, to be subject to meaningful looks every time I drunkenly cadged a cigarette was unbelievably annoying – but it worked. I made my goals public, which as psychologists have long known, is one of the best ways of ensuring that such goals are met. The big bet of the Paris treaty, and it is a big bet, is that the same is true of nations.

All these people will be watching too

The whole world is watching

No treaty could hope to impose something as difficult and dramatic as a global energy transition on all the nations of the world. But the Paris treaty can provide some of the motivation required for states to start to aligning their national policies in the same direction. It can state clearly the intended destination, without telling everyone how to get there. It can document everyone's progress along the way, cultivate an atmosphere of cooperation and shared ambition, and make it clear to all who is not pulling their weight. It is a process, rather than a resolution; and as Pope Francis noted in his 2015 encyclical on climate change, “we are always more effective when we generate processes rather than holding on to positions of power.”

This is certainly a huge step in the right direction. But without adequate commitment at the national level, Paris itself will not be enough to deliver the change required. It will only work if enough aspiration is created to create a feedback loop of positive reinforcement, where bold policy submissions ratchet up the pressure on everyone else to raise their game.

If nations feel they have more to gain from gaming the system from without, or no one is willing to lead the way and provide an example to others, then the momentum will dissipate, critical mass will not be reached, and the world will slide over the event horizon of climate disaster.

Paris provides the framework by which national governments can undertake meaningful action. But the treaty won't take that action for them. That's why the work of MPs around the world, fighting for new legislation, new budget priorities, and new national policy on climate change and renewable energy, is so crucial to the eventual success of the Paris treaty. Climate Parliament legislators were at the Paris talks, urging their national negotiators towards more aspiration. And now the ink is dry, the MPs in our network are pushing their governments to take more aggressive action on climate, scale up their decarbonisation targets, and commit themselves to bolder positions on fossil subsidy reform, clean power, and energy efficiency.

We're contributing to the groundswell of policy change required to reach that critical mass so desperately needed to make Paris work. If you'd like to keep up to date on our work, you can sign up for our newsletter by emailing us here.

- Ben Martin, Editor

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