Societal Mobilization is Key to Global Climate Action

This article is part of the Global Governance Debates series

By Naghmeh Nasiritousi
Researcher, Department of Political Science
Stockholm University

Synopsis: It is not a question of either or, the Paris Agreement is necessary but needs to be strengthened with complementary initiatives.

Keywords: Paris Agreement, Kyoto Protocol, social movements, carbon clubs

Urs Luterbacher highlights the ongoing challenge of inadequate action on climate change and raises pertinent questions about strategies required to urgently tackle this problem. He clearly outlines the high stakes of failing to address climate change and points to the need for drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions globally. While the world succeeded in negotiating an agreement to address climate change in Paris in 2015, Urs Luterbacher rightly argues that this agreement is less than optimal since it rests on the voluntary contributions of countries. Nevertheless, by arguing that the Paris Agreement is not the required institutional framework for addressing climate change and that a return to the principles of the Kyoto Protocol is necessary, his conclusions are overly simplistic. In what follows, I will argue that the Paris Agreement sets the foundation for the world’s climate action and that, contrary to what Urs Luterbacher implies, Greta Thunberg and climate movements that seek to pressure governments to do more are generating momentum for strengthened climate action across the world.

As a starting point, it is important to remember that international climate cooperation has had many ups and downs in the past few decades. In a recent paper we described the challenges faced in over thirty years of international negotiations on climate change. The milestones in the negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention (UNFCCC) have been the Kyoto Protocol from 1997 (with emission reduction obligations for industrialized countries) and the Paris Agreement from 2015 (based on Nationally Determined Contributions by all countries). The Paris Agreement is based on voluntary action by states with an in-built ambition and review mechanism in order to encourage countries to strengthen climate action over time. In this sense it is weaker than the Kyoto Protocol that assigned emission reduction obligations to a set of states. On the other hand, it is stronger than the Kyoto Protocol in that it involves climate action by all states (although the US has recently requested to withdraw from the agreement). There is thus a clear trade-off between environmental stringency (and how legally binding emission reduction obligations are on states) and the breadth of participation by world governments.

Yet, Urs Luterbacher calls for again moving “toward the internationalized structures that existed under the Kyoto Protocol (KP), such as the Clean Development Mechanism, and reinforce them”. I find this problematic for several reasons. First, the Kyoto Protocol failed to significantly reduce emissions because major emitters did not participate in emission reductions. China, for example, did not have obligations to reduce emissions because it was considered a developing country, and the US never ratified the agreement on the basis that the Protocol would put the country in an uncompetitive position vis a vis developing country economies. In fact, much of the reduction in emissions attributed to the Kyoto Protocol appear to have stemmed from economic restructuring in post-Soviet countries. Second, it is not clear which principles of the Kyoto Protocol would be beneficial to restore and reinforce. While the Clean Development Mechanism is mentioned as an example, the Paris Agreement mentions a similar mechanism: the Sustainable Development Mechanism. This mechanism is aimed at replacing the market mechanisms from the Kyoto Protocol and make them more effective. The postponement of decisions on this at the two past UNFCCC Conferences of the Parties, however, attests to the difficulties involved in finding agreement on how such a tool will work in a world where all countries have pledged to work toward low-carbon development. Third, it is not clear how a stronger international framework would come about at a time of rising populism and weakened multilateralism. Urs Luterbacher calls for “a coalition of countries, Non-Governmental Organizations and industries“ to institute this change without providing any details on how this could come into effect.

“… the Paris Agreement is the only framework to enjoy legitimacy from virtually all nation-states …”

In principle, his suggestion is in line with ideas by, for instance, William Nordhaus and other scholars who have called for countries to form a climate club and enforce sanctions on members (and non-members) who shirk responsibility. While the potential for such a club to drive more ambitious climate action may be high, many questions remain about the political feasibility of forming such a club. In a new project – Pathways to Carbon Neutrality – my colleagues and I will examine the Climate Neutrality Coalition – a group of 29 countries that aim at showing leadership to achieve climate neutrality. Part of the project consists of investigating whether this coalition has the potential to develop into a fully-fledged carbon club. The coalition bases its work on the principles of the Paris Agreement but seeks to advocate for increased global ambition on mitigation in order to achieve the goals in the Paris Agreement. This example highlights that the Paris Agreement sets a universal bar for climate action, but that the bar needs to be raised through deepened international collaboration to actually achieve the goals in the Agreement.

That the Paris Agreement is inadequate for dealing with climate change on its own is the very reason for why Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement and other climate movements are so important. That the striking students and other climate movements are putting pressure on governments is precisely what the Paris Agreement requires since it is based on a domestic logic of climate action. While it is true, as Urs Luterbacher point out, that such movements act within a framework “which is (Pareto) inferior to more constraining cooperative frameworks”, the fact remains that the Paris Agreement is the only framework to enjoy legitimacy from virtually all nation-states (except the US under the Trump presidency, although see the We Are Still In coalition of US actors who stand behind the Paris Agreement). Through their awareness raising and mobilization, such movements are building on the Paris Agreement to not only increase political will for steeper emission reductions but to also put pressure on climate diplomacy to foster necessary international collaboration on climate action. The European Union’s Green Deal and the Commission’s proposal of a border carbon adjustment indicate a heightened sense of urgency in acting on climate change in the EU, and signal to the EU’s trading partners that they too need to act more forcefully on reducing emissions. In other words, the Paris Agreement has set the ball in motion for transformations toward a low-carbon future. Greater societal mobilization is now required to make the ball move faster through complementary initiatives for more legitimate and effective climate action.

This is the second piece for our debate on “Global Environmental Governance.” Read the rejoinder by Gor Samvel entitled, “Let’s Think Beyond Kyoto, Paris and Social Movements: The Legal Responsibility of Private Actors for Climate Change.”

Leave a Reply