Voluntary Climate Pledges Aren’t Effective, Efficient, or Equitable. Here’s How Paris Can Succeed Anyway

May 29, 2015

From Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu to record-breaking drought in California, humanity is getting a preview of the devastation held in store by climate change.  The pressure is on world leaders to reach an agreement in Paris this December to cut back on climate-changing emissions from fossil fuels and deforestation.

Country teams head to Bonn, Germany next week to start negotiating the terms of a Paris climate agreement.  Unless the agreement includes the three politically practical measures that I explain below, it is set up to fail.

Why? Because current negotiations are based on countries’ voluntary climate pledges. If the Paris agreement does nothing more than codify these pledges, it will fail on three counts: it will fall short of delivering a safe climate, it will be unnecessarily costly, and it will divide responsibilities inequitably. 

Falling short

For a global climate agreement to deliver a safe climate, countries must collectively cap their emissions at a level that will keep global temperature rise below 2 °C (3.8 °F). The voluntary unilateral pledges currently being put forward fall far short of the reductions needed to effectively stay in this safe range.  

Costlier than it needs to be

The cheapest way to reduce emissions is by trading emission rights across borders, as European countries do through the European Union Emission Trading Scheme.  A climate agreement based on domestic pledges alone with no international trading will be inefficient, less ambitious, and more expensive than it needs to be. 

Unfair burdens

Agreeing who gets to burn the last carbon from Earth’s remaining carbon budget is the challenge at the core of any climate agreement. Should the responsibility to reduce emissions, and conversely the right to emit, be based on historical emissions, or population, or economic capacity, or development needs, or some other notion of equity? With voluntary pledges, emission rights go by default to whichever countries are least willing to accept shared responsibility for the global good, imposing an unfair burden on everyone else. 

Politically acceptable — today 

What Paris sacrifices in effectiveness, efficiency, and equity it may gain in political acceptability.  Yet political lines drawn in the sand today may be washed away by rising seas tomorrow.  As the effects of climate change become increasingly severe and apparent, the politically practical level of action on climate will grow. And as green technologies rapidly advance, the costs of clean energy and forest conservation are likely to be lower than anticipated, just as they have been for past environmental solutions. Some climate actions may even pay for themselves when other benefits such as clean air and less traffic are considered.  

World leaders should prepare for a rapid future shift in political openness toward climate action by adopting three measures in Paris:  

1. Hold to the 2 °C temperature target. The Paris agreement should fix a long-term target of preventing global temperature from rising above 2 °C.  This already-agreed target is increasingly pulled in two directions by what scientists say is a safe limit and what years of delay make realistic to achieve.  As pledges fall short in Paris, leaders must resist the temptation to shift the goalposts.

2. Periodically review and strengthen pledges. The national pledges that countries commit to by Paris won’t be — and can’t be — final. The Paris agreement should schedule periodic, formal reviews where countries can assess their collective progress toward 2 °C and subject each other’s national pledges to public scrutiny and peer pressure. Formal reviews would work like a ratchet to strengthen weak or inequitable pledges and prevent backsliding on strong pledges.

3. Recognize international transfers. The Paris agreement should recognize international transfers of emission reductions between countries.  That is, countries should be able to claim credit for financing emission reductions achieved in another country.  Regulators are linking carbon markets anyway to lower costs and increase ambitions (e.g., between Quebec, Ontario, and California, and between Switzerland and the European Union), but would benefit from the legitimacy bestowed by a global agreement.

Even if voluntary pledges don’t deliver a safe climate this year, these three actions in Paris can succeed in paving the way for a stronger, cheaper, fairer response to climate change in coming years. 


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.