The 2015 meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) resulted in the ratification in 2016 of the now-famous Paris Agreement, a pledge among 55 world powers to individually and significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
This diplomatic achievement has been widely regarded as a positive turning point for the battle against climate change on ecosystems and human populations across the globe.
Although celebration is warranted, the Paris Agreement falls short as an international legal framework for meeting the challenge of climate change and sufficiently reducing emissions. World leaders are slated to meet once again in Glasgow in November 2021 for the first major sequel of the 2016 Convention. If the international community hopes to be successful in reversing the worst trends of climate change, 2021 will have to involve more ambitious climate pledges compared to 2016.
The actions taken this year will have lasting consequences on an international scale. It may be obvious that the problem of climate change is global in nature and therefore poses international challenges. After all, climate change is most closely associated with the phenomenon of global warming, and most commonly quantified using the metric of global temperatures. Nonetheless, it is necessary to emphasize exactly how climate change poses international threats requiring international collaboration.
Among the many adverse impacts of climate change, public health researchers have also begun to find that climate change is linked to increases in the prevalence of allergies, cardiovascular diseases, and infections related to air quality. This association derives in large part from the accelerating growth of allergenic plants and the increase in pollen concentrations. Moreover, researchers have found that urban air pollution and its effects on public health disproportionately affect poor communities, especially in low-income countries, because industrial emissions tend to concentrate in those areas.
In addition to air quality and public health concerns, current research also suggests that population increases, land use, and climate change all interact to create a mounting risk of global food security crises. The global food supply is already strained in impoverished areas of the world. Making matters worse, the most expedient options for increasing food supply to under-nourished populations could be the undesirable consequence of increasing emissions and slowing progress toward Paris Agreement goals. Meanwhile, the predicted patterns of climate variability—with or without increases in transportation-related emissions—are likely to exacerbate the problem by reducing crop yields.
According to Amy Molotoks and colleagues in a modeling study, the countries most affected by food security crises between now and 2050 will be those with the highest rates of population growth, especially “India, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Tanzania, the United States of America, Egypt, and Indonesia.” Many of these countries also have high concentrations of poverty. As with pollution, the consequences of climate change interact directly and indirectly with existing socioeconomic disparities.
More broadly, a growing consensus in the climate change literature shows that insufficient global action to combat climate change reflects similar inequities. The success of the international response will depend on all countries to take urgent action, but the responsibility falls largely on high-income countries that have the means to do so. Conversely, if Paris Agreement goals are not met, it will be the poorest countries that experience the most disastrous results. The Paris Agreement’s most salient benchmark is the target of limiting global temperature increases to a maximum of 2.0° Celsius over pre-industrial levels, with the more ambitious goal of limiting such increases to 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Although achieving the 2.0° target would represent some progress, even the difference between the modest target and the more ambitious goal would have dire consequences for some of the poorest countries on earth.
Put simply, the difference between 2.0°C and 1.5°C is not the difference between “good” and “very good.” Rather, as shown in a study on climate change inequities by Andrew King and Luke Harrington, the difference is better described as disastrous consequences versus less disastrous consequences. The authors used a method called the “signal to noise” (S/N) ratio, which measures the detectability and impact of different degrees of climate variability. This method helps show how ecosystems in warmer climates (e.g., tropical regions) can be more easily shocked by smaller changes in the climate.
Given that poorer countries tend to cluster in warmer areas of the planet, such disparities tend to correlate with relative wealth and prosperity. Therefore, according to King and Harrington’s model, “The median average S/N ratio between the [1.5°C and 2.0°C] targets that would be experienced by the wealthiest people on the planet is 0.94 […]. In contrast, the average S/N ratio that a person in the rest of the world would experience is 1.3,” or 35 percent higher than the average for the world’s wealthiest people. Notably, the lowest impacts would be felt in the United Kingdom, where the industrial revolution and subsequent spikes in emissions originally began.
The questions facing the international community are therefore more complex and challenging than whether the Paris Agreement’s 2.0°C target can be achieved. Equally urgent is the underlying question of whether the more ambitious goal of 1.5°C can be achieved, because that goal is a necessary condition for preventing some of the worst projected international inequities. Even more troubling, however, is the question of whether either of these goals is sufficient for averting the crises outlined above, in the realms of air quality, ecological harm, food security, and human survival.
It is not the case that limiting average temperature increases to 1.5°C over pre-industrial levels should be considered a failure. Such an outcome would be a monumental victory in comparison to total inaction. Nonetheless, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has clearly indicated that global emissions need to be reduced to zero by 2050. This goal is considered necessary in order to prevent some of the worst consequences of climate change and to avoid drastically and permanently altering the survivability of the planet and its ecosystems. Even the most ambitious pledges made at the 2015 Paris Conference will not achieve this goal.
In this light, it is important to recognize that the Paris Agreement was only one step toward the massive change that is now necessary to change the course of climate change to any significant extent. As Daniel Bodansky elegantly explains, “The Paris Agreement seeks a Goldilocks solution that is neither too strong (and hence unacceptable to key states) nor too weak (and hence ineffective).” In doing so, the Paris Agreement continued off of the precedent of the 2009 Copenhagen Conference, which replaced the more rigid model of the Kyoto Protocol in favor of a more flexible model.
According to S. Niggol Seo, the Paris Agreement corrected key flaws in the Kyoto Protocol, including its lack of rational support for a 5 percent reduction from 1990 emissions and its inequitable allocation of responsibility to some countries over others. However, as Seo and others agree, the Paris Agreement has the drawback of being a “weaker legal framework than the Kyoto Protocol.” Illustrating this point, Bodansky observes, “Even the biggest fans of the Paris outcome do not claim that it puts the world on a pathway to limiting climate change to well below 2 degrees Celsius, […] much less the even more ambitious aim of 1.5 degrees, which many argue is necessary to avert catastrophic damage.” In concrete terms, research has suggested that the pledges made at the Paris Conference would only keep temperature increases within 2.7°C. This outcome falls troublingly short of the Agreement’s most modest targets.
In this light, there are two main weaknesses of the Paris Agreement. First is the lack of aggressive concrete requirements of participating states to bring their individual contributions of emissions reductions to necessary levels. Second is the lack of legal requirements, as the Paris Agreement is fundamentally voluntary. As the IPCC acknowledges, commitments to Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of member states are “not legally binding.” Indeed, the text of the Agreement uses soft verbs such as “invites” and “requests” throughout.
To improve these aspects of future international legal frameworks, Glen Peters and co-authors propose more transparent tracking and regular reporting of progress toward Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of member states. However, those changes would not go far enough to address the root cause of the Agreement’s weakness. To ensure delivery on international obligations, future agreements not only need widespread international support. They must also be legally binding, with clear incentives for compliance and strong disincentives for failure.
In sum, 2021 needs to be a turning point for climate change on the international stage simply because previous attempts, though monumental diplomatic achievements, have not gone far enough. Therefore, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres did not exaggerate when he referred to 2021 as a “make or break” moment for international cooperation against climate change. When international leaders meet in Glasgow this fall, they need to arrive not merely with a resolve to ramp up their individual efforts. Even more urgently, they need to be willing to apply significant political and legal pressure on one another, collectively, to establish a much stronger legal framework than the Paris Agreement currently demands of its signatories.