The 2015 Paris Climate Conference (better known as COP21) is over and we have an agreement—sort of. Despite what you read in the press, the so-called “Paris Agreement” looks a lot less like a binding multilateral treaty and much more like an aspirational policy statement. The short and the long of it is that the Paris Agreement has no teeth, only a soft shaming mechanism intended to keep countries compliant with its loosey-goosey terms. Here’s how it works. Every signatory state is expected to put forth “nationally determined contributions” (NDC), that is, domestic policy steps intended to reduce emissions. These NDCs are then subject to monitoring and review, with countries expected to dial-up their NDCs every five years (though there is no requirement that they do so). Potential scofflaw states, so the thinking goes, will not wish to be “outed” under the Paris Agreement’s transparency requirements, but even if they are, so what? All countries defect from their international commitments when the costs of compliance outweigh the benefits. The Paris Agreement will not change this reality.
Some commentators have stated that the Paris Agreement should have come packaged with a stronger enforcement mechanism without bothering to think through how such a mechanism might work. Imposing multilateral sanctions on defectors would probably be next-to-impossible to coordinate. Bilateral enforcement is easier to pull off, so long as there is a real incentive in play. If China, for instance, defected from its NDCs, why would Canada bring an enforcement action against it? NDC defection arguably harms the whole planet, not just Canada, and Canada will not want to incur enforcement costs alone. Now compare this scenario to a routine trade dispute where China imposes illegal quotas on imports of Canadian maple syrup. In that case (which would likely be handled through the World Trade Organization), Canada has a concrete and unique economic interest in trying to force China to remove the quotas and if China doesn’t, Canada can take retaliatory measures. The Paris Agreement is not a trade treaty, and so it’s unrealistic to expect it to function like one.
Another gripe about the Paris Agreement is that it does not impose concrete emissions benchmarks on states but instead allows each country to come up with their own independent determinations that may fall far below what is needed in order to keep global temperatures at bay. Let’s assume the Paris Agreement did come up with these standards. Would any country—particularly ones with developing economies—have signed on? The odds are strong that any imposed standards would have been fairly low level and, again, without a strong enforcement mechanism in place, would the imposed standards have mattered at all? At least the NDC model allows states to make their own economic and environmental calculus in line with domestic interests which can be altered as the political winds shift. A country hesitant to make strong NDC commitments now may be singing a different tune in 10 years.
In the end the Paris Agreement isn’t worth getting too excited about. Conservative critics of the accord miss the point when they act as if international law is once again encroaching upon American sovereignty. The whole agreement is built around domestic policy considerations, not internationally imposed standards. The U.S. can be as “progressive” or “regressive” on emissions policy as it wants without offending the terms of the Paris Agreement. And even if the U.S. defected from its NDC commitments, it’s unlikely that anything would come of it except for some bad international press. And Americans should be quite accustomed to that by now.