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On September 22, 2020, Xi Jingping stepped before the UN General Assembly—virtually, of course—and offered a surprise announcement: China would aim to reach a peak in carbon emissions by 2030 and to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. This was a dramatic acceleration of Chinese ambition on decarbonization, one which single-handedly appeared to transform the global outlook, bringing the global goal established by the Paris Agreement—to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial average—back from the brink of impossibility.
Under what regime of global climate governance was this commitment made, and to what approach to climate geopolitics should it be credited? Under what regime or approach are its promises most likely to be realized, rather than discarded, as has nearly every emissions pledge ever made by any country in the entire history of pledged decarbonization?
I ask these questions—one backward looking, one forward looking—not because the answers are obvious but because they are murky, at best. The world is now five years past the negotiation of the Paris accords and four years past their signing, with, according to Climate Action Tracker, only Morocco and Gambia decarbonizing at a pace compatible with the goal of those accords. In this sense, with emissions and warming continuing essentially unchecked, the planet has left Paris behind. But no successor regime has yet replaced Paris, and the ad hoc climate geopolitics of recent years—Emmanuel Macron threatening to spike the Mercosur trade deal over Jair Bolsonaro’s Amazon policies; the EU pledging a quarter of its COVID-19 stimulus to climate investments; Xi, a few weeks after his decarbonization pledge, calling the United States a “troublemaker” and “consensus-breaker” which had “seriously undermined global climate governance and cooperation”—still reflect the basic values of that agreement.
Charles Sabel and David G. Victor argue that a new model is needed, that the loose Paris regime has already proven inadequate to fulfill its own goals—indeed the goal of addressing the growth of carbon emissions at all. They suggest Paris is incapable not just of producing new commitments on the scale issued by Xi, but also of seeing the fulfillment of even much less significant existing commitments made by other countries. In other words, Paris can’t be the answer to either of the critical questions above. “With so many diverse interests across so many countries,” they write, “it has been hard to get global agreement simply on the need for action; meaningful consensus has been even more elusive.”
I’ve had my doubts about Paris, too—beginning with the inadequacy of initial pledges, the loneliness of Morocco and Gambia in meeting them, and the seeming unlikelihood that countries would respond to those dispiriting early returns by accelerating their commitments rather than simply walking away from them. That the UN framework meant all nations could wield effective veto power over future agreements didn’t seem to bode well, either, given how hard it was to imagine global climate unanimity. But Sabel and Victor’s essay demonstrates the problem of trying to bury a global agreement too quickly. Presumably, that announcement from Beijing surprised them, too.
It’s not just Beijing. When Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, vowing to withdraw from Paris, many analysts predicted it would be a devastating blow—another obituary written too quickly. While the Paris Agreement itself surely is not the only, or even primary, driver of accelerating ambition—others include extreme weather, climate activism, cultural changes amid growing public concern, the dramatic price decline of renewable energy, and the dramatic rise in the forecasted costs of warming impacts—it has been undeniably in the post-Paris era that global agreement on the need for action has been most firmly established, and in that period that meaningful consensus about its urgency has followed. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, under conditions that might have worried previous microgenerations of climate advocates, net-zero commitments have been made in 2020 not just by China but by the EU, Japan, and South Korea, each of them aiming to get there by 2050. Joe Biden’s climate plan for the United States also calls for net zero by 2050. That makes almost three-quarters of the global economy, and more than 60 percent of current carbon emissions.
Pledges are just pledges, of course, and history counsels skepticism. Sabel and Victor suggest that an “experimentalist” approach to the problem is likely to prove more effective than a top-down approach. But, post-Paris, we are already “experimenting” with both national commitments and the policies that might make them real. Indeed, open-ended experimentalism is so much a part of the Paris approach that it has often been cited as its fatal flaw: emissions commitments and decarbonization targets are entirely voluntary, with neither enforcement nor encouragement mechanisms; goals are produced nation by nation, independent of the global 2-degree goal (this meant, at least at first, that the sum of national goals was totally insufficient to meet the global goal); the pathways to those national goals are left to the countries themselves, each contemplating a different mix of emissions and therefore a different mix of decarbonization strategies; pledges can be altered at any time (toward more ambition, it was hoped, but of course pledge-breaking was possible, too).
Over the last few years, the record of that experimentation was encouraging, if not yet sufficient to avoid dramatic warming. While the world is, to this point, falling far short of the Paris targets, it is also already doing much better than was feared just a few years ago. Coal, which grew terrifyingly fast during the first decade of the twenty-first century, is suddenly facing a much bleaker future. Renewables are already cheaper in most places—and poised to get so much cheaper that by decade’s end they will cost less than even the “bridge fuel” of natural gas. Every year, the energy and emissions projections from even cautious institutions such as the International Energy Agency are revised downward, and the high-emissions scenario that was referred to until just a year or two ago as “business as usual” now appears, to most analysts, an impossible, beyond-worst-case projection.
Will it hold? For as long as climate has been discussed in the realm of geopolitics, the conversation has been complicated by the perception that decarbonization represents a collective action problem and the question of what enforcement or enticement mechanisms could “solve” it: since the benefits of decarbonization are distributed globally while costs are concentrated locally, some external force or structure was required, it was imagined, to bring the nations of the world into line. There was hope, for a time, that the UN could do that work, though, increasingly, analysts have echoed Sabel and Victor’s skepticism about that. Over the last year, for instance, Yale economist William Nordhaus has called for the creation of a “climate club,” built on the World Trade Organization model, which could recruit nations to the cause through the power of free trade. Similarly, historian Adam Tooze has argued that managing the green transition of developing economies will require the creation of a G40. Personally, I’ve cited the model of the nuclear nonproliferation agreements reached between the Soviet Union and the United States at the end of the Cold War as a model for possible bilateral dealmaking between today’s two carbon superpowers, China and the United States. (In truth, that cooperation, which has grown more difficult, was a necessary precondition of the Paris accord, and would probably be required of any large-scale future agreement, as well.)
But as political scientists Matto Mildenberger and Michaël Aklin have recently found, it has not been primarily the collective action problem that has stymied global action but more local battles between the winners and losers of climate policy. (These are battles between uneven sides, to be sure, though the power of entrenched fossil fuel interests has been rapidly diminishing in the post-Paris world, along with their public valuations.) And the recent progress of our carbon trajectory away from worst-case and “business as usual” scenarios—progress almost improvised in the absence of any kind of new, post-Paris geopolitical regime—suggests at least the possibility that global governance may not be the determinative driver of progress or failure.
Instead, it now appears plausible that, at least in the short term, significant if insufficient decarbonization gains might be achieved all around the world without a successor regime to Paris—pledges and programs arising nation by nation, enacted largely according to the logic of national self-interest and cultural change. Depending on your perspective, this may sound naive (that the countries of the world might feel simply compelled to act, rather than policed into action) or cynical (that market logic will do more to bend curves than international agreements might). And whatever your perspective, such an ad hoc arrangement will prove inadequate, given that years of slow progress have effectively taken “safe” warming off the table.
It is also just the start. Later decarbonization will be more difficult, and the geopolitical challenges arising from new energy regimes are not yet so clearly in view, as Jason Bordoff, director of the Center on Global Energy Policy, has recently written. It may yet prove critical to “police” the bad behavior of recalcitrant nations through enticements, sanctions, and more. But for now, this recent progress is far more encouraging than what came before the Paris accords. It also happens to be precisely the future that Christiana Figueres, the former head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change who presided over Paris, has been predicting in the wake of the agreement’s “failure.” Our climate timeline doesn’t allow for much more failure, even the partial kind. But let’s maybe not toss Paris into the trash bin just yet.
Biden may have rejoined the Paris Agreement, but diplomacy isn’t enough. To decarbonize the economy, we must integrate bottom-up, local experimentation with top-down, global cooperation.
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