This article reviews and assesses the outcome of the 21st Conference of the Parties
(COP-21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
(UNFCCC), held in Paris in December 2015. It argues that the Paris Agreement
breaks new ground in international climate policy, by acknowledging the primacy
of domestic politics in climate change and allowing countries to set their own
level of ambition for climate change mitigation. It creates a framework for making
voluntary pledges that can be compared and reviewed internationally, in the hope
that global ambition can be increased through a process of ‘naming and shaming’.
By sidestepping distributional conflicts, the Paris Agreement manages to remove
one of the biggest barriers to international climate cooperation. It recognizes that
none of the major powers can be forced into drastic emissions cuts. However,
instead of leaving mitigation efforts to an entirely bottom-up logic, it embeds
country pledges in an international system of climate accountability and a ‘ratchet
mechanism’, thus offering the chance of more durable international cooperation.
At the same time, it is far from clear whether the treaty can actually deliver on
the urgent need to de-carbonize the global economy. The past record of climate
policies suggests that governments have a tendency to express lofty aspirations but
avoid tough decisions. For the Paris Agreement to make a difference, the new logic
of ‘pledge and review’ will need to mobilize international and domestic pressure
and generate political momentum behind more substantial climate policies worldwide.
It matters, therefore, whether the Paris Agreement’s new approach can be
made to work.