On Friday, April 22, I watched 175 global leaders convene at the United Nations to confirm their collective commitment to climate action by officially signing the Paris Agreement.
In an attempt to improve implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement sets a goal of preventing global temperatures rising 2℃ or more above pre-industrial levels, with a stretch goal of 1.5℃.
Although the international movement to reduce greenhouse gas emission can be traced back to before the 1992 UN framework and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the possibility of effectively adopting an international agreement seemed extremely unlikely until the talks in Paris at the end of last year.
But what took so long?
Some quick economics and history, to explain: As it stands, businesses determine the price and quantity of the goods they produce based on the intersection of cost and demand. However, without an acknowledgement otherwise, “cost” as typically understood in the business world overlooks the external costs and social consequences of their production — including environmental effects.
If companies actually added these external costs, including potential environmental degradation, to their private costs, then prices would be higher and demand would go down, leading to widespread corporate losses. The ever-present need to supply an increasingly globalized world cheap goods forces companies to choose between harming the environment or harming their businesses — and, for them, the answer was pretty clear.
Throughout the 20th century, the belief that all nations were in direct competition with one another limited the potential for large-scale global cooperation on this front, as evidenced by the failures of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 and the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.
But as the destructive power of global warming became increasingly clear, so too did the international consensus that something must be done about it.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change brought together 192 countries in an effort to balance these two competing needs: addressing atmospheric greenhouse gas levels and encouraging domestic economic growth.
Yet, although 197 countries and territories ratified the UNFCCC, the treaty was non-binding and therefore unenforceable.
In 1997, the international community convened again in Rio de Janiero to extend the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change by ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. Unlike its predecessor, which simply recommended that advanced industrialized nations reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, the Kyoto Protocol required nations to actually keep their promises by actively committing to the UN’s targets.
Since the United Nations believed that the industrialized nations were the primary perpetrators of greenhouse gas pollution, the Kyoto Protocol instituted “common but differentiated responsibilities” — the idea that developed countries can do more to change (and, just as meaningfully, have contributed more to) global emissions levels, and therefore should be responsible for changing their own behavior more. The Kyoto Protocol legally bound 37 industrialized countries and the European Union to international emission reduction and exempted developing nations from the first commitment period.
Unfortunately, the Kyoto Protocol’s dichotomous expectations led many nations to withdraw from the discussions because they believed that some nations were unfairly exempt.
In 2001, the Bush Administration rejected the provisions of the Kyoto Protocol because it exempted countries like China, among others. Canada, Russia, and Japan followed suit by withdrawing from the second round of commitments and pursuing their own unilateral economic interests.
Unlike its predecessor, the Paris Agreement requires every country to adopt domestic-level policies based on their proposed “Intended Nationally Submitted Contributions” (INDCs) in order reach the 1.5 degree goal. Fifteen states of the original 175 have already ratified the agreement domestically — the fact that all nations are expected to participate precludes individual nations from arguing that the treaty is unfairly applied.
But the real difference between Kyoto and Paris lies in citizens’ access to — and support of — international efforts to address climate change. Pew Research Center’s Spring 2015 Global Attitudes Survey studied public opinion towards climate change legislation in over 40 countries and found that, although levels of concern varied by region, 8 out of 10 respondents polled believed that climate change is an imminent threat.
Citizens’ collective concern paired with the imminence of the climate change threat will continue to spark domestic movements for climate change legislation, which will pressure governments into adopting the Paris Agreement at home. The Paris Agreement has a long way to go, if our aim is to avoid irreversible global climate catastrophe. But the framework the agreement put into place is crucial for addressing climate change on a global scale.