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The day after Paris: politicians hand the baton to green industries

Public interest and peer pressure among countries are integral to enforcement of the Paris Agreement. Mal Langsdon/Reuters

A man’s reach should extend his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? – Robert Browning

The international community has been negotiating on climate change since 1989, but the Paris Agreement marks a real step forward. It aims to accelerate a move away from fossil fuels to mitigate global warming and to help vulnerable countries adapt to the effects of climate change, and reflects a clear recognition of the urgency of the task.

Still, the NGO Climate Action Tracker estimates that a fully implemented Paris Agreement will lead to an average warming of 2.7 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2100, well short of the Paris goal of a 1.5C rise in temperature.

But even though the Paris Agreement is insufficient to achieve the espoused target, it may help us get there by sending strong signals to the private sector to invest more heavily in green technologies. Most importantly, it indicates a new political approach to dealing with climate change, one in which the focus of attention is private sector innovation and is subject to pressure from a constellation of other actors, including nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), social movements and the scientific community, as well as the UN itself.

My colleagues and I called this model of international relations “green pluralism,” to recognize two important shifts: sovereign states no longer tackle environmental challenges alone, and treaty compliance occurs best in a focused adversarial relationship between the private sector and elements of civil society.

A better model for environmental pacts

The Paris Agreement rests on a number of interacting parts, all of which are necessary to make it work. In a book I coauthored on the effectiveness of multilateral environmental regimes, we argued that effective governance required attention to the cooperative environment among nations, building national concern among elites and the mass public, and building state administrative capacity for enforcing international commitments.

The Paris Agreement is structured in such a way to succeed where previous climate accords have not. Whereas prior accords relied entirely on state commitments, for which there were insufficient mechanisms to induce compliance, the Paris Agreement stands a better chance of succeeding because it recognizes the need to send strong signals to the private sector to develop cleaner technologies and to rapidly introduce them.

It does so by going beyond the state-based commitments of previous agreements to include elements aimed at encouraging private sector involvement, and to hold the private sector accountable for pursuing a transition to renewable energy.

What is key in the Paris Agreement is that the interconnected parts provide a model of governance. Whereas prior efforts relied on only one or two of these parts, the Paris Agreement’s success will ultimately hinge on the interconnections between an entire constellation of moving parts, including:

Administrative elements: The existing array of building blocks, treaties and international institutions involved in the climate change regime complex has largely been ineffective in dealing with climate change. The administration of the Paris Agreement will rest in the UN, which will collect and assess the voluntary national commitments and publicize them for public scrutiny. Thus, the UN will be responsible for checking and verifying national reports on emissions.

Supporting policies: Climate treaties have generally been silent on explicit policy proposals. The Paris Agreement provides for ongoing discussions about carbon markets and carbon offsets as mitigation options, an important signal to the private sector.

Finance: Finance has always been seen as a political sticking point in climate change negotiations. Developing countries insist on increased financing to pay for cleaner energy and to pay for adaptation.

The conference started with two significant financial announcements, which were significant because they signal the active involvement of new actors in climate change governance. Twenty countries and a handful of the world’s richest individuals proposed a public-private initiative to raise US$20 billion for new green energy, with $2 billion coming from the private investors. India and France launched The International Solar Alliance aimed at mobilizing $1 trillion worth of investment for developing solar power in the tropics.

The Paris Agreement calls for a target of $100 billion a year from industrialized countries for developing country to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change, although the question of whether this will be new money or repurposed foreign aid remains unclear, as does the question of whether this will entirely be from public sources or if it will include private funding as well.

We should remain attentive to assure that these private and public/private initiatives do not yield a future in which green tycoons control the commanding heights of the next generation of large-scale technological systems: think Henry Ford and cars, Carnegie and steel, John D Rockefeller and oil.

Bold Targets. The Paris Agreement adopts a goal of 1.5C, moving beyond the Copenhagen target of two degrees of warming. While providing a strong metric against which to measure progress, it is a high-stakes gamble as such an ambitious target runs the risk of delegitimizing the whole enterprise and particularly the UN, as the guarantor of countries’ rights and hundreds of millions of people who will be dislocated by global warming if no progress is achieved.

Scientific support. Prior international environmental treaties have been effective when they had the active participation of the international scientific community. Science informed the Paris Agreement, particularly through international science panels which imparted the technical knowledge and helped build national concern through scientific publications.

Strong role of the public. The publicity surrounding the periodic updates of national commitments will be closely scrutinized by NGOs and domestic audiences. The public will ultimately hold firms and governments accountable for introducing ambitious new plans over time, and implementing them.

Mobilizing public attention

The Paris Agreement represents a combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches to climate governance. The pressure on governments from the international community and from civil society provides whipsaw dynamics to increase commitments to further cut emissions. And governments’ top-down signals and pressures on the private sector should enable rapid progress in low-carbon technologies.

Implementing the Paris Agreement rests on mobilizing attention to the public commitments, and encouraging more ambitious national policies and goals in the future. Such progress depends on harnessing and coordinating concurrent pressures from the scientific community and civil society on the behavior of states and firms, while encouraging firms to invest more heavily in energy conservation, renewable energy, and green technologies.

Governments can help by withdrawing fossil fuel subsidies, providing subsidies to renewables, setting carbon taxes and mobilizing a large-scale coordinated R&D initiative to generate more green technologies and to accelerate their commercial applications worldwide. The IEA or the G20 are plausible venues for strong international cooperation on energy R&D.

At heart, the challenge is to mobilize public concern and demand for greener technologies, while encouraging firms to develop them as quickly as possible. The Paris Agreement is a good first step.

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