The Paris Agreement was a critical step forward in the global fight against climate change. But even after it has entered into force, it is still unclear how it can achieve its ambitious collective goals within a framework that affords nearly unfettered flexibility to countries to define their own contributions. The conventional view is that elements of the agreement such as coordinated 5-year pledging cycles and robust peer review will overcome this tension between ambition and flexibility by catalyzing increased action over time. Previous climate agreements, however, have not been particularly effective in this regard. They have struggled to mobilize pledges that are consistent with shared objectives, generate new actions to close gaps that have arisen, and ensure that countries actually follow through on their commitments. If the Paris Agreement is to succeed where its predecessors have not, it must produce stronger incentives for countries to align their domestic actions with global objectives. Countries with the most at stake in the agreement—namely, the most ambitious and the most vulnerable—must prioritize climate change in their foreign policies, and use their diplomatic resources to incentivize others to increase their actions and to deter free-riding. This includes providing positive inducements for countries to increase their actions, and, where necessary, imposing consequences on countries that refuse to do their part or honor their commitments. The countries of the High Ambition Coalition should build on their success in securing the Paris Agreement by leading this effort.
Steven Herz is a senior attorney with the Sierra Club.