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The Paris agreement survived the Trump administration. What happens now?

World leaders meet this weekend to discuss how to turn promises into action

An environmental activist walks inside a hot-air balloon before launching it during a demonstration outside an E.U. summit in Brussels on Dec. 10. (Francisco Seco/AP)
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On Dec. 12, world leaders will gather online to mark the fifth anniversary of the Paris agreement on climate change. There will be a celebratory mood. China, Japan and South Korea have offered big new “net zero” pledges. Europe is racing to finalize an even more ambitious target in advance of this week’s summit, and, following the November election, the United States appears poised to follow suit. If these countries follow through — a big “if” — these moves could put the world within a hair of reaching the Paris agreement’s goals.

Does this mean the treaty is working? As the Paris agreement hits the five-year mark, my research on the concept of “catalytic cooperation” can help us understand both how it survived President Trump and what might happen next.

The Paris agreement proved surprisingly resilient

Withdrawing from the Paris agreement was among Trump’s 2016 campaign promises. His unexpected electoral victory took place during the 2016 U.N. “Conference of the Parties” (COP22), leading many of the delegates gathered in Marrakesh, Morocco, to fear the agreement might collapse if Trump forced the United States, a major party, to walk away.

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But just a few days after the U.S. election, the Moroccan hosts managed to assemble a unanimous declaration reaffirming the goals of the Paris agreement. Even after Trump announced, in June 2017, that he would indeed withdraw the United States from the agreement, cooperation did not break down.

I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” Trump said in 2017. But the person actually elected to represent Pittsburgh, Mayor Bill Peduto, clapped back on Twitter with a promise to follow the Paris guidelines, heralding an extraordinary mobilization of support for the treaty from U.S. states, cities, businesses and other groups.

President-elect Joe Biden has promised to rejoin the Paris agreement on the first day of the Biden-Harris administration — which would make every country in the world a signatory. As this week’s summit aims to show, climate cooperation has not moved backward under Trump. Instead, it has crept forward, although emissions continue to rise.

Rethinking how to get collective action

To explain this seeming paradox, and to understand how the Paris agreement will operate going forward, means taking a closer look at the concept of collective action. We typically see climate as a “tragedy of the commons,” in which no one has an incentive to act unless there is a guarantee others will act as well. That is why previous environmental treaties, such as the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, focused on collectively negotiating specific, legally binding emissions cuts.

But many aspects of climate politics depart from the traditional model of collective action. Countries, cities, states and provinces, and businesses often act unilaterally, driven by pro-climate citizens, consumers or investors — or motivated by “co-benefits” like reducing air pollution or improving energy security.

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Costs and benefits also change over time. As various leaders adopt new policies and deploy more technologies, they alter the cost-benefit calculus for others. Here’s an example of how these “increasing returns” play out. Early investments in renewable energy by leaders like California and Germany reduced prices so much that renewables now compete with fossil fuels in many applications, in both cost and performance.

Under these conditions, a model of “catalytic cooperation” more plausibly describes how countries, cities, states or companies behave. In this set up, the chief barrier to cooperation is not the threat of free riding but the lack of incentive to act in the first place.

International institutions can support cooperation in this context, but not through bargaining around collective agreements. Instead, “catalytic institutions” like the Paris agreement work to shift preferences and strategies toward cooperative outcomes over time.

The Paris agreement does this by setting a global goal, but also giving countries flexibility to determine their own commitments to reduce global emissions while ensuring that they must iterate them every five years. It also uses review processes to promote learning and build capacity, making it easier and more attractive for countries to up their commitments over time. And it encourages local governments, businesses and others to do their part as well, expanding the pool of leaders.

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2020 was to be the first big test — there will be many more

The first big test of the Paris agreement, initially scheduled for COP26 this year, has been postponed by the pandemic. If countries ratchet up their pledges to put the world on track to holding the global temperature rise this century below 2 degrees Celsius — the goal of the Paris agreement — it will be the biggest victory for global cooperation since 2015. But only a handful of countries have put forward new pledges thus far. This December’s summit will launch a year-long diplomatic push to boost that number before countries reconvene in Glasgow in November 2021 for COP26.

The Biden-Harris administration has made clear it intends to make climate a foreign policy priority. But even if we do see a wave of ambitious new pledges by COP26, that does not mean we’ve solved the challenge of climate change.

The Paris agreement provides a broad framework, but it lacks concrete drivers. Analysts point out the need for complementary actions, such as targeted forms of cooperation in sectors like steel and shipping, or changes in trade and investment law. The agreement also lacks coercive tools to address laggards. As countries shift away from their reliance on fossil fuels, we can expect climate politics to become more “existential,” with incumbent industries — and the countries that depend on them — fighting to block change.

In sum, catalytic cooperation helps us understand how the Paris agreement can work, but also highlights its limits. Still, the leaders meeting virtually on Dec. 12 have cause to celebrate. As the Trump administration winds down, a treaty many had written off is looking stronger than ever.

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Thomas Hale is an associate professor in global public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. Follow him @thomasnhale.

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