Why are multilateral environmental agreements so darn complex?

The widespread impact and arguably lack of international cooperation during the Covid-19 pandemic, has pushed many environmentalists to already draw parallels with climate change. There have been calls for flattening our emissions curve in the same way we have already flattened the infection curve in many parts of the world during this crisis. This emissions flattening would require us to act now. As I have previously written, time inconsistency is likely to hinder meaningful progress on climate change for many years to come.

2020 is also the year in which the United States will finally withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Although the commotion surrounding the US withdrawal has mostly settled, it may be worth taking another look at why the Paris Agreement will likely end in failure and why the private sector will save us.


Part 1 – Praise for Paris

Many hailed the Paris Agreement as historic and one of the biggest diplomatic successes in history. It reached milestones that no other agreement before it even dared to. It achieved what was not achieved before under the Kyoto Protocol, and it is for these very reasons that the public is supportive of the agreement. Let’s break down the praise for Paris: 

  1. Participation – The biggest strength of the Paris Agreement, may be its wide support. At the time of the US withdrawal, the US joined Nicaragua and Syria as the only other UNFCCC nations to not support the Paris Agreement, however since then both these nations have joined the agreement, leaving the United States as the only UNFCCC member state to have rejected the Paris Agreement. However, with 194 countries currently signed to the Paris Climate Agreement, it appears to command almost universal acceptance (Bodansky, 291).
  2. Attainability – The Paris Agreement ensures that the expectations and contributions of nations become progressively stronger over time rather than setting immediate unreachable targets. This forward-thinking outlook has allowed many more nations to buy into the dream of an effective multilateral agreement. 
  3. Equality – The emission reductions under the Kyoto Protocol applied only to developed countries allowing huge polluters such as China and India to continue emitting freely, but the Paris Climate Agreement has fixed this mistake. Instead, the Paris Agreement specifies the same core obligations (not emissions targets) for all countries, and allows Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that nations set themselves and therefore are more encouraged to adhere to (Bodansky, 290). 

Part 2 – Evaluating Multilateral Environmental Agreements

Before analysing whether the Paris Agreement should be praised or abandoned, it must be worth exploring how these Multilateral Environmental Agreements should be evaluated. As described by Bang et al.(p210), environmental economists generally agree on three main criteria:

    1. An agreement must attract broad participation from many nations, especially those significantly contributing to the global greenhouse emissions. Without the most important nations on board, no agreement can be termed as successful. 
    2. Secondly, the agreement must be ambitious with its targets. It would make no sense to set unambitious targets in order to garner support, as the agreement would then be useless in terms of combating climate change. 
    3. Lastly, but possibly most importantly, in order to be successful, the agreement must “achieve high compliance rates, that is, the participating countries must actually meet their emissions reduction targets”. Without compliance and enforcement, an agreement is worth nothing as it would not get remotely close to the aims it set out to achieve.

Each criterion is necessary but not sufficient. The key is that all three criteria need to be met, satisfying only one or two may be a morale boost or seen as symbolic but ultimately, in order to be a multilateral environmental agreement that successfully reduces carbon emissions in a meaningful way (reducing emissions to the global targets set by the agreement), all three of the above mentioned criteria need to be satisfied. 

Part 3A – Evaluating Paris: Participation

By evaluating the Paris Agreement under these criteria, we may learn significantly more about its potential for the future. The broad participation of nations in the Paris Agreement has been a major talking point, but is it really a strength?

The Paris Agreement has garnered widespread support, with only the United States, currently being ‘against’ the Paris Agreement. However, with the US not being part of the deal, it can no longer be termed as successful in terms of participation. The US is one of the world’s top two emitters, and therefore to satisfy the first criteria of a successful multilateral environmental agreement, the US must sign on and ratify the agreement. 

Why has the United States not signed and ratified the agreement? The fact that numerous articles within the Paris Agreement differentiate between the US and China, in terms of its obligations, has resulted in the US refusing to implement it.

The Senate of the United States has made it known that they will not ratify any agreement on climate change that differentiates in its articles between developed and developing nations (Bodansky, 292-293). The Paris Agreement on multiple occasions calls for distinctly separate policies and mandates for developed and developing countries. China is fortunate enough to still have the title of developing country due to its poor rural population, and therefore continues to receive privileges over the United States in environmental agreements although it is a larger emitter of greenhouse gasses. Where and how does the agreement call for differentiated obligations?

      1. Article 9, paragraph 1 of the Paris Climate Agreement calls for developed countries to “provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties”. This would mean that the US would be required to provide financial resources to other nations, whereas China would not be obligated to do so.
      2. In addition, Article 4 paragraph 4 of the Paris Agreement calls for “Developed country Parties to take the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets”, whereas developing nations such as China are merely encouraged to move to this point over time. 

It sounds reasonable that those countries that have ransacked the environment for their own economic gain should now assist others wanting the same growth without also ransacking the environment. In an ideal world this would be an optimal outcome, but we live in a world where economic power is of the highest priority to our governments, meaning that they are willing to sacrifice the environment of the collective for the monetary benefit of their own people. By signing and implementing the policies called for under the Paris Agreement, the United States would essentially surrender their title as the world’s economic superpower to China. 

This brings to light a significant problem not only present in the Paris Agreement, but in all multilateral climate agreements. For the foreseeable future, we are unlikely to get both China and the United States to sign, and implement an agreement. If the agreement differentiates nations, the US will not implement its clauses, if the agreement does not differentiate nations, it is almost certain that China will refuse to abide by it. Therefore, achieving success in terms of participation within these agreements, becomes near impossible.


Part 3B – Evaluating Paris: Ambitious Goals

If all nations, including the USA, signed and ratified the Paris Agreement, would climate change be halted? To answer these questions, we need to analyse the goals of the Paris Agreement and whether they are ambitious enough to significantly reduce carbon emissions to keeping warming below the 2 degrees celsius target.

The answer lies with the concept of Nationally Determined Contributions. As outlined in Article 3 of the Paris Agreement, NDCs allow nations to independently determine the amount by which they would reduce their emissions within certain time periods. This must force any individual to question, if each nation has the authority to set their own goals, why would any nation set ambitious targets that hamper their own economic development? 

The answer is they don’t. Many nations, especially big polluters have put forward emission reduction targets so weak that it forces us to question the credibility of the agreement: 

    1.   China’s nationally determined contribution is anything but ambitious. The world’s most populated nation has committed to reaching peak emissions by the year 2030, meaning that until then, under the Paris Agreement they are permitted to pollute more than they are polluting today. According to a US Government study in 2011, Chinese emissions were already predicted to peak by 2030, meaning that China’s joining of the Paris Agreement requires no economic sacrifice on their behalf to meet their own targets.
    2. This is not an issue unique to China, India the world’s third largest polluter submitted equally unambitious goals. India refused to commit to a date before which they would reach peak emissions. In fact, India would more than accomplish their “goals” set out in their nationally determined contributions, even if they continued on business as usual. To highlight the non-existing ambitions of India’s emissions targets, a Bloomberg New Energy Finance study shows that even if India’s emissions were to more than double by 2030, India would remain compliant with their goals under the Paris agreement.  

According to Taryn Fransen, an international climate change policy expert, there remains a substantial gap between the 2 degrees celsius target set out by the agreement, and where the current NDCs will leave us. All studies show that the NDCs are insufficient in limiting warming to 2°C, bringing to question the level of ambition in the agreement. Fransen and other experts are calling for reforms under the agreement in order to increase the ambition, although only time will tell if this will be achieved before more nations depart the agreement.

If the mechanism of Nationally Determined Contributions allows nations to be a part of the Paris Agreement without sacrificing any economic growth, it must then be a determining factor in the Paris Agreement garnering this unprecedented support. However genius the idea of NDCs may have sounded at the outset, it has failed miserably, resulting in targets so unambitious that they severely compromise the credibility of the Paris Agreement. The central issue brought to light is that if any environmental agreement were to ask participating nations the actual emission reductions required to keep the temperature increase below 2 degrees celsius, the agreement would garner no support. It is evident that this is not an issue unique to the Paris climate agreement but rather an issue inherent to environmental agreements. For the foreseeable future, achieving both high participation and the needed emission reductions is not possible. 

Part 3C – Evaluating Paris: Compliance and Enforcement

If in a hypothetical situation we assumed that all nations, including the high emitting nations, fully participated in the agreement, and that the goals of the agreement were sufficiently ambitious, would we then halt climate change? This issue of compliance and enforcement is the last hurdle, if the goals are not enforced or nations do not comply, the agreement will have nothing more than political worth. It is still early days in assessing the compliance of the participating nations in the Paris Agreement but Guri Bang of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Policy in Oslo, has already predicted that the agreement’s “achilles heel is likely to be compliance” (209). 

Historically there appears to be a negative correlation between the ambition of the goals and the compliance of nations, meaning that even the few nations who have put forward ambitious goals are less likely to comply in the long run due to the economic sacrifices it would take to maintain their commitments. The US was one of only a few countries to put forward highly ambitious NDCs and their subsequent withdrawal from the agreement, perfectly supports the argument that ambitious goals are likely met with non-compliance.

It is important to note that signing a UNFCCC agreement is not legally binding and a nation always has the right to act in their own best interest and withdraw from the Paris Agreement. What even further highlights the issue at hand, is that the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 was legally binding and nations still failed to comply. How then can we expect parties to the Paris Agreement, a non-binding agreement, to honour their nationally determined contributions? If nations do not naturally comply, enforcement mechanisms must be used, but are there really any enforcement mechanisms that could guarantee compliance?

    1.  The agreement provides no consequences to nations failing to achieve their NDCs, and if an enforcement committee is later set up as planned it shall be “expert based in a manner that is non-punitive” as stated in Article 15 of the Paris Agreement. 
    2. Furthermore, according to Eric Neumayer a leading environmental economist at the LSE, the use of sanctions or boycotts as enforcement mechanisms are not viable as it would go against World Trade Organisation obligations and it would be ignorant and foolish for any nation to attempt to sanction a country such as the US for withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. 
    3. Many believe that public opinion will result in high compliance rates but the empirical evidence suggests otherwise. Compliance rates have not been good as the United States denounced the Kyoto protocol in 2001. Canada too was able to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, almost unnoticeably after 10 years of failing to comply with the agreement (Bang et al., 212). 

It appears as if nations are unlikely to comply and that the agreement lacks the necessary enforcement mechanisms. Although it is certainly too early to make a definitive judgement, all indicators are suggesting that the Paris Agreement will not be scoring highly on compliance and enforcement. As far as our analysis is concerned, the Paris Agreement is not destined for success, but what are the implications of this? 

Part 4 – The Inherent Flaws

After evaluating the agreement, it may be natural to quickly label it as a failure. This may not be completely fair, as the Paris Agreement merely embodies all the illnesses inherent to the process of negotiating multilateral environmental agreements. Instead, we should then question the legitimacy of these agreements.

As highlighted earlier, there are three conditions required for a successful agreement and it has also been proven that the nature of these agreements does not allow these conditions to be met simultaneously. Therefore the Paris Agreement and any other agreement on climate change cannot be successful in reducing global emissions and ending climate change. As citizens of the world we need to realise that we cannot rely on multilateral environmental agreements, as evidently they do not culminate into results. 

There is only one case in which climate agreements will not fail us, and that is when the issue is upon us. The only success story of a multilateral environmental agreement is the Montreal Protocol of 1987. It has been so successful that ex-UN secretary General Kofi Annan described it as “the most successful international agreement to date”. The Montreal protocol commanded immediate action due to the immediate threats posed by the ChloroFluoroCarbons. The imminent threat to society of skin cancer due to the depleted ozone, meant that pressure was put on polluters with immediate effect, no distant time frames were set out. 

As many negative impacts of climate change are predicted to arrive at the turn of the century, society is likely to continue its high fossil fuel consumption until then. If we continue to rely on environmental agreements to halt climate change, we may need to wait another 80 years, for a time when the climate change impacts will truly be severely felt by everyone, everywhere. By then, it will be too late.

Part 5 – The private sector rocks

When I insist that multilateral agreements won’t save us, I do not mean it in a pessimistic “we are all doomed” nature. Instead, we can put all our hope in the private sector, because as they have already shown, innovations will save us.

In the Future is Faster than You Think, authors Peter Diamandis and Stephen Kotler, outline that wind and solar in particular have been on exponential growth curves for many decades already. Wind has seen a 94% decrease in cost since the 1980s and solar a 99.7% reduction since 1977. Ramez Naam, the head of Energy and Climate Innovation at the Singularity University, describes solar’s price-performance curve “like nothing we’ve ever seen in energy”.

Further, advancements in materials science has led to the development of Perovskite, a light sensitive crystal, which may increase the efficiency of conversion from sunlight to electricity 4-fold over today’s solar panels. And if that doesn’t work as we hoped, “quantum dots”, which is a nanoscale semiconductor type material, has the potential to triple the output from solar panels. The exponential progress in renewables is not ending any time soon.

And if all else fails and we cannot limit emissions, there is still a solution. It’s called the ‘diamonds from the sky’ approach. It involves drawing C02 out of the atmosphere and converting it into nanofibers. These nanofibers are so strong they can be used in the blades of wind turbines – talk about a good plan! According to Diamandis and Kotler, a system of this nature only covering 10% of the Sahara Desert could reduce atmospheric CO2 levels back to pre-industrial levels within a decade. Of course, 10% of the Sahara is a lot, it would be a monstrous effort, but if it is needed to save the planet, it will certainly be done.

All the technology we need to combat climate change is here, now it’s all about scaling. And yes one may argue that generally when interventions are scaled there are always unintended consequences. However, these are not social interventions, where irrational humans are at play. These are infrastructure projects – ten solar panels will produce 10 times the energy of one, it’s that simple. If we need to scale to save the world, trust me we will and we already are.

Part 6 – Its happening, we’re just not watching carefully enough

The rapid progress of renewable energies has left coal in particular completely stranded. In April 2016, Peabody Energy, the largest private coal company in the world filed for bankruptcy. They have since made a return, but only time will tell as to how long they will last. Furthermore, in 2016 China cancelled the construction of 160 coal plants and in 2017 India killed $9 billion in ongoing coal projects in a single month.

In 2019, what was formerly the largest coal plant in North America (Nanticoke Generating Station in Ontario, Canada) finished a repurposing into a solar farm. Also in 2019, China finished construction on what is now the world’s largest floating solar power plant. 2019 was a year that saw solar projects being completed and launched right throughout the world.

We are now in the roaring twenties. Yes, the global spread of Covid-19 has put us on the back foot, but I am certain we will come bouncing back. What will this decade hold for renewables? Only time will tell, but I can guarantee you it will be fast. Be sure to watch things closely.

If you enjoyed reading and would like to be notified when a new post is published, please leave your details here!


Bang, Guri et al. “The Paris Agreement: Short-Term And Long-Term Effectiveness.” Politics And Governance, vol 4, no. 3, 2016, p. 209. Cogitatio, doi:10.17645/pag.v4i3.640.

  Bodansky, Daniel. “The Paris Climate Change Agreement: A New Hope?.” The American Journal Of International Law, vol 110, no. 2, 2016, p. 288. American Society Of International Law, doi:10.5305/amerjintelaw.110.2.0288.

“China At Crossroads: Balancing The Economy And Environment.” Yale Environment 360 – Published At The Yale School Of Forestry & Environmental Studies, 2017, http://e360.yale.edu/features/china_at_crossroads_balancing_the_economy_and_environment.

Diamandis, Peter H. and Kotler, Steven. The Future is Faster than You Think. 2020. Simon and Schuster. New York, New York.

Edenhofer, Ottmar. Summary for Policymakers. Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2014.

Harris, Jonathan M. et al. “The Economics Of Global Climate Change.” Global Development and Environment Institute TUFTS University. 2017.

Lessons from Kyoto: Paris Agreement will Fail National Economies and the Climate. Majority Staff White Paper, United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. 21 April 2016.

Neumayer, Eric. “Environmental Economics And Sustainable Development.” London School of Economics and Political Science. July 2017.

Paris Agreement. Paris. December 12 2015.

Rosen, Amanda M. “The Wrong Solution At The Right Time: The Failure Of The Kyoto Protocol On Climate Change.” Politics & Policy, vol 43, no. 1, 2015, pp. 30-58. Wiley-Blackwell, doi:10.1111/polp.12105.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: