What if the Paris Climate Talks fail?

As world leaders prepare to meet in Paris to hammer out a climate change deal this December, they do so with much positive energy. Public concern about climate change is very high and some of the world's largest emitters have shown they are willing to take on serious cuts. Last September, citizens around the world came out in droves to demonstrate their support for a solution to climate change. In November the Group of Two largest global emitters—the United States and China—announced a historic agreement and action plan on global warming. In the struggle to manage climate change, these are unprecedented events that dramatically improve the chances that a global agreement will be made in France.

Still, one doesn't need to look far to see how easily large international agreements to limit greenhouse gases can fail. For one, they are highly sensitive to domestic political pressure. The first major attempt at a global climate change accord, the Kyoto Protocol, met many domestic obstacles on its way to becoming international law. When Kyoto was signed by President Clinton, the agreement immediately hit roadblocks in Congress, which refused to ratify the deal. Once George W. Bush became president in 2000, climate policy in the U.S. languished for more than a decade.

Support for the Kyoto Protocol also shifted from positive to negative in Canada. There, Kyoto was signed by a Liberal government and ratified by the same Prime Minister in 2002. But in the following decade and a half, Canada became a major international oil and gas producer, causing its emissions to soar. Upon winning a majority of Parliamentary seats in 2011, the Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper pulled the country out of the Kyoto Protocol entirely.

Australia's support for Kyoto has also see-sawed back and forth with changing domestic politics. The ratification of the agreement languished in parliament for years until, in the midst of the UN climate summit in Bali in December of 2007, Australian voters elected a Labour government supportive of the Protocol (This led to cheers and applause in the normally staid conference centre when the Australian delegation at the Bali conference announced the change in their climate policy). Yet, when the Labour Party was subsequently replaced by the new Abbott Liberal government, many of the climate change policies that the previous government had set up were eliminated.

With the Kyoto Protocol soon to expire, the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit was supposed to strengthen and further entrench Kyoto. Instead, it is generally seen as a massive failure in international climate diplomacy. Efforts to have countries commit to hard targets fell to the wayside, and in the end the world was left with very weak emissions reduction targets with very little legal teeth behind them.

With this track record, it isn't logical to put all our eggs in the Paris basket. We need a backup.

As leaders prepare for a new round of agreements in Paris this December, we need to ensure that countries continue to work together and monitor one another to reduce GHGs. But will a grand, global agreement be reached this December? Gaining support for a global protocol is not an easy process. Like most other UN-level agreements, a global emissions reduction agreement will need the consent of every single member state. That's nearly 200 countries, many of whom are not native speakers of any of the UN's working languages. Meeting every one of their needs can water down agreements or make it very easy for a member to back down on previous commitments, as Canada did from it's Kyoto goals.

In order to ensure accountability to reduction goals, countries shouldn't just make commitments to their UN partners... They should also make additional one-on-one commitments with their neighbours, partners, and key economic competitors.

Of course, it's imperative that political capital be spent on creating a binding international agreement in Paris. But it's equally important that other binding initiatives be created as well. Rather than rely on a single international agreement, countries should also build an interweaving web of agreements with its neighbours and trading partners—agreements that are compatible to each country's international commitments.

This has been done before. To meet their Kyoto Protocol commitments, the members of the then-recently formed European Union agreed to pool their emissions reduction goals together. They decided to act like one large jurisdiction and that the international community judge their ability to meet their commitments as a single European group, rather than as separate countries. The initiative helped the EU meet its reduction goals with success.

  Conventional international agreements function like the model on the left, where accountability is through a centralized secretariat. On the right, a more resilient model where countries are also directly accountable to one another through additional agreements outside of the main UN-level accord.

 

Conventional international agreements function like the model on the left, where accountability is through a centralized secretariat. On the right, a more resilient model where countries are also directly accountable to one another through additional agreements outside of the main UN-level accord.

Though the European joint implementation of the Kyoto Protocol was formed to ease the reduction of carbon by independent countries, it also created accountability mechanisms that were more meaningful to each individual country — if countries within the EU failed to meet their commitments, they wouldn't be failing the international community: They would be failing their neighbours or those with whom they shared very strong economic and social ties.

This interweaving, web-like accountability model may help to explain why the UK was able to maintain its climate change goals despite changes in political power and ideology. Unlike it's cousins in the Anglosphere, who were only tied to the Kyoto mechanism, London had to meet the expectations of both the international Kyoto Protocol and its European allies as well.

An interweaving web of commitments can be more resilient than grand global agreements. Kyoto expired in 2012, yet the members of the EU continue to move ahead on reducing their emissions together.

If countries are serious about reducing emissions and stopping climate change, they should not be reliant on a single international agreement. They should be building bilateral and multilateral agreements with their friends and allies. President Obama has made great strides in this direction. Along with China, the White House has announced bilateral agreements with its southern neighbour as well as agreements with India, another rising economic power.

We should have more smaller emissions reduction agreements. There should be a NAFTA agreement, an ASEAN agreement, an APEC agreement. The more we enmesh countries into carbon-reducing agreements, the less likely it will be that they will shirk away from their responsibilities. If they do, they won't just be failing the United Nations, they'll be going back on more intimate agreements made with their close neighbours and allies.

Enmeshing countries into different webs of agreements would make it more likely for GHG reductions to actually occur, regardless as to the success of the Paris conference. If Paris succeeds in having countries lower their emissions, these enmeshed webs would support such an accord. If Paris fails, then at least we would have these webs of country-to-country agreements as a backup.