Governmental and media attention, ever fickle, is likely to wane, but that could prove beneficial. States can now proceed with the day-to-day work of implementation without attracting the ire of Twitter-happy politicians. But the diminished spotlight could also result in fewer resources — human, institutional, financial — being dedicated to climate change. This would be a profound mistake. For it is now that the hard work of operationalising the Paris Agreement, and delivering on its promise, truly begins.
The Paris Agreement, the most ambitious agreement that was politically feasible in 2015, would be out of reach in today’s geopolitical context. Given the political dysfunction that birthed it, the Paris Agreement has both strengths and weaknesses. In this next phase of global climate governance, the international community needs to build on the agreement’s strengths, and address its weaknesses.
One core strength of the Paris Agreement, as fleshed out in the Katowice Rulebook, is the crucial role of information. States are required to provide detailed information on the type of actions they have taken. If they have absolute economy-wide targets, they need to provide quantifiable information on their reference points for measurements, the gases covered, their planning processes, how they consider their contribution fair and ambitious, and how it contributes to the objective of the regime.
In short, they have to provide clear, transparent and understandable information on what they did and how they did it, so it can be added up and compared to what others are doing. Currently there is a wide variation in the information provided, making aggregation and comparison challenging. States also have to report on indicators for measuring their progress, which is significant as there is no binding obligation to achieve the targets identified in their contributions. States are obligated to submit new, tougher commitments every five years, but they do not face legal consequences if they fail to achieve their targets.
These detailed reporting requirements could potentially instil discipline and accountability in national implementation processes.
There is also an extensive collation of information — from various sources (state, non-state, inter-governmental) and covering the entire spectrum of issues (mitigation, adaptation, support, equity and science) — that will feed into the global stocktakes of collective progress that will occur every five years. While these stocktakes, of political necessity, do not function as ‘ratchets’ for individual countries’ contributions, states are required to provide information on how they have taken the outcomes of stocktakes into account in framing their next contribution.
The strong informational flow in the process places considerable demands on countries like India to generate and present robust information. But building this capacity — institutional, research, technological — will help India and other countries develop better and more tailored regulation, governance and implementation processes, and will eventually lead, it is hoped, to more ambitious targets.
The Paris Agreement’s principal weakness is its lack of mechanisms to review the adequacy of the contributions from states (adequate in relation to their unique capabilities or responsibilities) — and a ‘ratchet’ to oblige them to increase their efforts, if found lacking. Proposals to introduce such toothy provisions in the Paris Agreement proved unpopular, both with developing countries like India as well as most developed countries.
Indeed, the absence of such provisions paved the way for the near-universal adoption of the Paris Agreement. This absence could be troublesome for a regime that aspires to limit temperature increase to “well below 2°C”, as evidenced by the fact that current contributions place the planet on a 2.7°-3.2°C pathway. Even the rules to operationalise the global stocktake adopted at Katowice specify that its outputs should not have an ‘individual focus’ and should only include ‘non-policy prescriptive consideration of collective progress’.
Thus, ‘adequacy review’ needs the most bolstering down the road. But there are promising signs that other actors are stepping up — from the Urgenda decision that obliged the Dutch Government to increase its emission reductions target to the “We are still in” campaign that promises to meet the US targets, despite their announced withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.
Delivering on the promise of the Paris Agreement requires sustained engagement from states, sub-state actors (such as cities, mayors and municipalities), courts (at all levels), the entire spectrum of non-state actors, and even individuals. The Paris Agreement, with the adoption of the Katowice Rulebook, is well on its way to being operationalised, and each of us has a vital role to play.