In the aftermath of celebrations over the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change's Paris Agreement, disappointment that the legally binding aspects of the accord did not include the emission reductions and financing commitments populate my Twitter and Facebook feeds.
Does that mean the agreement is a failure? Should we tear it up? Not at all! In fact, the separation of the legally binding versus the voluntary aspects of the accord was a careful, deliberate, and--at least in my opinion--very intelligent choice. And here's why.
First, the concept of legally binding doesn't exist between sovereign nations. Some nations will make the commitments legally binding within their own states, but there won't be an international police force to penalize non-compliant states. Second, such commitments would have required the U.S. Senate and similar bodies in other nations to formally ratify the Accord. And as climate policy expert Alden Meyer points out, this is unlikely to occur in the current political climate. And third, for the above reasons, the goal in Paris was not to come away with legally binding commitments, but rather for all nations to seriously consider the most they can do, and publicly commit to their best effort--with an emphasis on the word publicly.
One way to think of it is like a potluck dinner, in reverse. At a potluck dinner, each guest brings food to share. No one person brings a complete meal; but once all the food is assembled, there is supposed to be enough for everyone. In preparation for the potluck, each guest reviews their food supplies (and their favourite recipes) to determine what to bring.
In the same way, each country brought their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to Paris. Before setting their INDCs, they reviewed their emissions and reduction options to determine how much action they could agree to, and of what type. For example, India plans to install LED streetlights and leapfrog a traditional distributed grid; the EU will cap and trade carbon; and Bhutan is planning to regrow their forests. In addition to calculating carbon sinks and storage, many developed nations also estimated the amount they could contribute to financing adaptation in developing nations already suffering the impacts of climate change. At a potluck, as at COP, there is also the challenge of assigning the amount of food each guest is to bring. This is particularly challenging when some guests have large appetites and large resources, while others are near starvation and have little to offer.
Once all the INDCs had been assembled and laid on the table last week, it was clear that reductions were insufficient to achieve the global goal of a 2C target or below. For that reason, various countries such as Canada stepped up their contributions over the course of the negotiations, and a great deal of discussion focused on the role of land use and carbon sequestration-could it provide the salad course?
There is a catch with voluntary measures, of course. If enough of the "guests" don't carry through on their promises to bring food, the table will be sparse and the world will collectively miss its goal. At a potluck, there is no formal mechanism for penalizing such guests. No fines or jail time are handed out for failure to participate. There is a price, though: social ostracism. In the same way, even binding limits in international treaties don't provide much more accountability. If an agreement included a penalty for not meeting one's targets--payment into a fund, for example, to support nations that would need to spend more on adaptation--how could anyone be forced to pay? Until other nations are willing to implement meaningful sanctions over non-compliance, there's no big stick to wave. The small stick we're left with is public shaming.
With shaming as the only current viable recourse for failure to comply with COP targets, why not agree on voluntary commitments, and use those to push for greater ones? Searching through the cupboards one more time to see if there's a bag of rice or package of cookies left to bring to the potluck is the equivalent of each nation taking another long look at its economy, its transportation and industry, and its resources. What more is capable with existing technology? Could public and private investments be tapped? What separates the low-hanging fruit from the deeper, more costly reductions?
The Conferences of Parties are designed to publicly highlight each nation's commitments and capabilities. As a public and very high profile forum, it provides a powerful instrument for facilitating change. One country's reductions, which may have seemed ample and sizeable back home, may suddenly shrink when displayed on a global stage, side-by-side with similar efforts from other economies. No one wants to be the person who dragged out the single-sized tart of last year's apples from the back of the freezer, while their neighbors brought a fresh-made pie for twelve.
So let's not be too hasty to claim an accord without binding limits is a failure. Voluntary reduction may still lead to a successful global potluck, if each nation's contributions are regularly reviewed, sampled, and commented on around the world--as is the plan.
This blog originally appeared at The Equation, the blog of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Caleb Crow, sustainability engineer and Ph.D. student in political science at Texas Tech University, contributed to this post.