Paris Accord: Fact or Fiction?

Is the highly-touted 2015 Paris climate accord substantive or merely international slight-of-hand? In a new paper in the British journal Nature, a group of six international scholars, led by David G. Victor of the University of California, San Diego, suggest that the agreement is proving to be a sham. Titled “Prove Paris was more than paper promises,” the article observes, “No major industrialized country is on track to meet its pledges to control the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause climate change. Wishful thinking and bravado are eclipsing reality.”

David Victor

David Victor


The theory behind that Paris agreement was voluntarism, an antidote to the mandatory greenhouse gas emissions reductions in the failed 1997 Kyoto protocol honchoed by then-Vice President Al Gore. Under Paris, countries agreed to make pledges to reduce emissions, based on their own economic and environmental conditions. A collaborative global approach will then emerge. Paris would “reboot” the international effort in the face of Kyoto’s failure.

According to the Nature paper, “That logic, however, threatens to unravel because national governments are making promises that they are unable to honour.” While President Trump is pulling the U.S. out of the agreement (and the U.S. overwhelmingly rejected the Kyoto treaty), the advanced industrialized countries are giving lip service to the agreement but failing to meet the goals they set for themselves.

While emissions are falling in most of the advanced economies, including the U.S., says the article, “the declines are too slow to meet the pledges that governments made in Paris.” The rich countries have made the biggest pledges on reductions, while developing countries have largely made easily-achieved goals. But the muscular economies are failing to deliver.

* The U.S. in the Obama administration said it would cut emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. Yet the country was probably only ever on track to cut its emissions by 15–19%. “The energy markets are, of their own accord, substituting natural gas for coal; and policies that push renewable energy and energy efficiency are playing a part.” Trump’s action is likely to slow that decline.

* Japan made a similar pledge: 26% below 2013 levels by 2030. But Japan’s energy economy is already quite efficient, says the Nature article. “Making an efficient system even more frugal will require a massive effort. The costs of meeting Japan’s pledge are high, and they are poised to increase to levels that are unsustainable politically for industries that must be competitive worldwide.” Japan, according to the analysis, “is unlikely to meet its aim to supply 20–22% of electricity from carbon-free nuclear power by 2030; our analysis suggests that 15% is more likely. Today, just 5 of the country’s 42 nuclear reactors are producing electricity. Efforts to restart more are mired in political and regulatory issues in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-reactor disaster.”

* Europe also “faces a big gap between words and actions,” according to the article. While the European Union has an “emissions trading scheme” or ETS, 55% of greenhouse gas emissions – buildings, transport, agriculture and waste – are outside of the ETS. “The costs of changing these sectors could be high and the practical difficulties in implementation numerous. For example, European plans to shrink energy use by 27–30% by the year 2030 compared with the business-as-usual scenario are extremely ambitious. Progress is dogged by the weak building regulations of member countries, poor enforcement of minimum standards and double counting of energy savings from overlapping policies.”

The report says, “Other advanced industrialized countries present a similar story of public swagger and lagging implementation.” These include Australia, Mexico and South Korea, all of which have high announced goals and dodgy reductions plans.

Despite the hand-clapping about Paris, says the report, getting real progress is difficult. “It is easy for politicians to makes promises to impatient voters and opposition parties. But it is hard to impose high costs on powerful, well-organized groups. No system for international governance can erase these basic political facts. Yet the Paris agreement has unwittingly fanned the flames by letting governments set such vague and unaccountable pledges.”

Co-authors of the Nature article include Mitsutne Yamaguchi, Keigo Akimoto, and Yoichi Kaya of the Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth in Tokyo; Danny Cullenward of Near Zero in California; and Cameron Hepburn of the UK’s University of Oxford.