Paris Agreement — A Good Foundation for Meaningful Progress

The Paris Agreement, a truly landmark climate accord, which was gaveled through today, December 12, 2015, at 7:26 pm (Paris time) at the Twenty-First Conference of the Parties (COP-21), checks all the boxes in my five-point scorecard for a potentially effective Paris Agreement, described in my November 17th blog essay, Paris Can Be a Key Step.  The Agreement provides a broad foundation for meaningful progress on climate change, and represents a dramatic departure from the Kyoto Protocol and the past 20 years of climate negotiations.

Essential Background

Anyone who has read this blog over the past several years, or – even more so — my academic writing over the past twenty years on international climate change policy architecture, knows that I have viewed the dichotomous distinction between Annex I and non-Annex I countries as the major stumbling block to progress. That distinction was first introduced in the climate negotiations at COP-1 in Berlin in 1995. That was, in my view, an unfortunate and narrow interpretation of the sound equity principle in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992) – “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” It was codified two years later in the Kyoto Protocol.

The Kyoto Protocol, which has been the primary international agreement to reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause global climate change, included mandatory emissions-reduction obligations only for developed countries. Developing countries had no emissions-reduction commitments. The dichotomous distinction between the developed and developing countries in the Kyoto Protocol has made progress on climate change impossible, because growth in emissions since the Protocol came into force in 2005 is entirely in the large developing countries—China, India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Mexico, and Indonesia. The big break came at the annual UNFCCC negotiating session in Durban, South Africa in 2011, where a decision was adopted by member countries to “develop [by December 2015, in Paris] a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties.” This “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action” broke with the Kyoto Protocol and signaled a new opening for innovative thinking (which we, at the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, took to heart).

The Paris Agreement is a Departure from the Past

Today, in Paris, representatives of 195 countries adopted a new hybrid international climate policy architecture that includes: bottom-up elements in the form of “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs), which are national targets and actions that arise from national policies; and top-down elements for oversight, guidance, and coordination. Now, all countries will be involved in taking actions to reduce emissions.

Remarkably, 186 of the 195 members of the UNFCCC submitted INDCs by the end of the Paris talks, representing some 96% of global emissions. Contrast that with the Kyoto Protocol, which now covers countries (Europe and New Zealand) accounting for no more than 14% of global emissions (and 0% of global emissions growth).

This broad scope of participation under the new Paris Agreement is a necessary condition for meaningful action, but, of course, it is not a sufficient condition. Also required is adequate ambition of the individual contributions. But this is only the first step with this new approach. The INDCs will be assessed and revised every five years, with their collective ambition ratcheted up over time. That said, even this initial set of contributions could cut anticipated temperature increases this century to about 3.5 degrees Centigrade, more than the frequently-discussed aspirational goal of limiting temperature increases to 2 degrees C (or the new aspirational target from Paris of 1.5 degrees C), but much less than the 5-6 degrees C increase that would be expected without this action. (An amendment to the Montreal Protocol to address hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) is likely to shave an addition 0.5 C of warming.)

The problem has not been solved, and it will not be for years to come, but the new approach brought about by the Paris Agreement can be a key step toward reducing the threat of global climate change.

The new climate agreement, despite being path-breaking and the result of what Coral Davenport writing in The New York Times rightly called “an extraordinary effort at international diplomacy,” is only a foundation for moving forward, but it is a sufficiently broad and sensible foundation to make increased ambition over time feasible for the first time.  Whether the Agreement is truly successful, whether this foundation for progress is effectively exploited over the years ahead by the Parties to the Agreement, is something we will know only ten, twenty, or more years from now.

What is key in the Agreement is the following: the centrality of the INDC structure (through which 186 countries representing 96% of global emissions have made submissions); the most balanced transparency requirements ever promulgated; provision for heterogeneous linkage, including international carbon markets (through “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes” – ITMOs); explicit clarification in a decision that agreement on “loss and damage” does not provide a basis for liability of compensation; and 5-year periods for stocktaking and improvement of the INDCs.

The Key Elements of the Paris Agreement

Here are some of the highlights of what stands out to me in the Paris Agreement.

Article 2 of the Agreement reaffirms the goal of limiting the global average temperature increase above the pre-industrial level to 2 degrees C, and adds 1.5 degrees C as something even more aspirational.  In my opinion, these aspirational goals – which come not from science (although endorsed by most scientists) nor economics, and may not even be feasible – are much less important than the critical components of the agreement:  the scope of participation through the INDC structure, and the mechanisms for implementation (see below).

Article 3 makes it clear that the INDC structure is central and universal for all parties, although Article 4 blurs this a bit with references to the circumstances of developing country Parties. But throughout the Agreement, it is abundantly clear that the firewall from the 1995 Berlin Mandate has finally been breached. In addition, five-year periods for the submission of revised INDCs (and global stocktaking of the impact of the Paris Agreement) are included in Article 14.  The first stocktaking review will be in 2018, with the start date for new INDCs set for 2020.

Article 4 importantly describes transparency requirements (domestic monitoring, reporting, and verification).  This is crucial, and represents a striking compromise between the U.S. and Europe, on the one hand, and China and India, on the other hand. All countries must eventually face the same monitoring and reporting requirements, regardless of their status as developed or developing.

Article 6 provides for international policy linkage, and is thereby exceptionally important for the successful exploitation of the foundation provided by the Paris Agreement.  The necessary language for heterogeneous international policy linkage (not only international carbon markets, but international linkage of other national policy instruments) is included. I have written about this key issue many times over the past ten years. It can bring down compliance costs greatly, and thereby facilitate greater ambition over time. (See our paper on this from the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements:  “Facilitating Linkage of Heterogeneous Regional, National, and Sub-National Climate Policies Through a Future International Agreement” By Daniel Bodansky, Seth Hoedl, Gilbert E. Metcalf and Robert N. Stavins, November 2014.)  The Paris Agreement accomplishes this through provision for “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes.” With this provision, we have a new climate policy acronym – ITMOs – about which I suspect I will be writing in the future.

There is considerable discussion of “finance” in Article 9, but the numbers do not appear in the Agreement, only in the accompanying Decision, where item 54 states that by 2025, the Parties will revisit the total quantity of funding, using the current $100 billion target as a “floor.”

Finally, the Agreement’s Article 8 on Loss and Damage was necessary from the point of view of the most vulnerable countries, but the most contentious issue is settled in Decision 52, where the Parties agree that this “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability of compensation.”  That decision was absolutely essential from the perspective of the largest emitters.

Anticipated Impacts of the Paris Agreement

Before I turn to my assessment of the Agreement, I should comment briefly on a topic that seems to be of considerable interest to many people (based on the questions I received from the press during my 10 days in Paris), namely what effect will the Agreement have on business, what signals will it send to the private sector?

My answer is that impacts on businesses will come largely not directly from the Paris Agreement, but from the policy actions that the various Parties undertake domestically in their respective jurisdictions to comply with the Paris Agreement.  I am again referring to the 186 countries which submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions – INDCs – under the Agreement.

So, in the case of the United States, for example, those policies that will enable the country to achieve its submitted INDC are: the Clean Power Plan (which will accelerate the shift in many states from coal to natural gas for electricity generation, as well as provide incentives in some states for renewable electricity generation); CAFE (motor vehicle fuel efficiency) standards increasing over time (as already enacted by Congress); appliance efficiency standards moving up over time (as also already enacted by Congress); California’s very aggressive climate policy (AB-32); and the northeast states’ Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

These various policies are credible, and they will send price signals that affect business decisions (but not across the board nor with ideal efficiency, as would a national carbon tax or a national carbon cap-and-trade system). In terms of impacts on specific companies, impacts will continue to vary greatly. But a useful generalization is that a major effect of most climate policies is to raise energy costs, which tends to be good news for producers of energy-consuming durable goods (for example, the Boeing Company) and bad news for consumers of those same energy-consuming durable goods (for example, United Airlines).

An Assessment with my Paris Scorecard

Lastly, here is my November 17th scorecard and my assessment of the five key elements I said would constitute a successful 21st Conference of the Parties:

  1. Include approximately 90% of global emissions in the set of INDCs that are submitted and part of the Paris Agreement (compared with 14% in the current commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol). This was obviously achieved, with total coverage reaching 96% of global emissions.
  1. Establish credible reporting and transparency requirements. This was achieved, through long negotiations between China and India, on the one hand, and Europe and the United States, on the other.
  1. Move forward with finance for climate adaptation (and mitigation) B the famous $100 billion commitment. This was achieved.
  1. Agree to return to negotiations periodically, such as every 5 years, to revisit the ambition and structure of the INDCs. This was achieved.
  1. Put aside unproductive disagreements, such as on so-called “loss and damage,” which appears to rich countries like unlimited liability for bad weather events in developing countries, and the insistence by some parties that the INDCs themselves be binding under international law. This would have required Senate ratification of the Agreement in the United States, which would have meant that the United States would not be a party to the Agreement. There was success on both of these.

Final Words

So, my fundamental assessment of the Paris climate talks is that they were a great success. Unfortunately, as I have said before, some advocates and some members of the press will likely characterize the outcome as a “failure,” because the 2 degree C target has not been achieved immediately.

Let me conclude where I started. The Paris Agreement provides an important new foundation for meaningful progress on climate change, and represents a dramatic departure from the past 20 years of international climate negotiations.  Of course, the problem has not been solved, and it will not be for many years to come. But the new approach brought about by the Paris Agreement can be a key step toward reducing the threat of global climate change. In truth, only time will tell.


As many of you know, over a period of ten days, we (the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements) were hard at work at COP-21 in Paris. I made a dozen presentations and we held bilateral meetings on a daily basis with national negotiating teams and and others. You will find videos, photos, and numerous stories about our activities in Paris at our Tumblr page. Thanks are due to the entire team who were with me in Paris – Robert Stowe, executive director, Jason Chapman, program manager, and Doug Gavel, director of media relations — as well as Bryan Galcik, communications coordinator, back in Cambridge.

Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.