Are the U.S. and China Ready, Willing and Able to Achieve Their Paris Agreement Goals?

After years of failing to produce a climate agreement backed by all of the world’s major greenhouse gas emitters, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) produced a historic success in Paris in December 2015. The Paris Agreement, backed by a consensus of all of the UNFCCC’s members and entering into force on November 4, 2016, has been widely hailed as a turning point in combating global climatic disruption. It enjoys broader and deeper political support for the agreement than for any of its predecessors, especially from the world’s two largest emitters, which have generally been reluctant participants in past international climate negotiations: the United States and China.


The Paris Agreement could garner so much support in large part because of its flexibility and openended nature: Every country was asked to define its own Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC), thereby setting its own commitment to emissions reduction relative to business-as-usual. Rather than aspiring to make these commitments binding through an international legal enforcement mechanism (of the sort that has often inspired opposition by those countries most jealous of their sovereignty), the delegates to Paris contented themselves with setting up a regime of transparent and honest reporting such that commitments can be reputationally enforced.

This means that as we look ahead to the question of whether the Paris Agreement can live up to its supporters’ hopes for it, the decisive factor will be whether countries are ready, willing and able to deliver on their promises. The ambitiousness of these promises is often questioned: although, as part of the proceedings in Paris, the UNFCCC committed itself to try to keep total warming under 2°C, current modeling suggests that countries’ INDCs would not jointly do nearly enough to achieve that goal. To achieve that more ambitious goal, the world’s countries will have to create a virtuous cycle of emissions reductions achieved followed by pledges to do even more. NOVEMBER 2016 Effective Public Management Are the US and China ready, willing, and able to achieve their Paris Agreement goals? 2 In the U.S., the Republican party’s consistent unwillingness to act on climate presents a significant obstacle to sustaining necessary political will over time.

How should we think about whether this will happen—or even whether countries are likely to deliver on their initial INDCs? A great deal of speculation makes the outcome of particular elections pivotal. If democratic nations’ elected leaders are committed to the Paris Agreement, the virtuous cycle can take off; if not, it might never get off the ground. But this focus on who will make decisions is less illuminating than trying to think about why they would make them. That means asking when and why the benefits of meeting INDCs will outweigh the costs of doing so.

My paper provides a framework for thinking through domestic political benefits and costs for the U.S. and China. That does not get us all the way to a prediction about how these leading emitters will ultimately orient themselves toward their initial Paris commitments, because it is too soon to tell what kind of international diplomatic dynamics will form around the Paris Agreement—in other words, just how strong will the reputational benefits of meeting commitments, and the reputational costs of reneging on them, be? But thinking through what domestic factors will affect each country’s likelihood of delivering on its commitments nevertheless takes us a long way toward a realistic understanding of where things currently stand.

I argue that in both the U.S. and China, national leaders’ enthusiastic support for the Paris Agreement is significantly complicated by widely dispersed domestic opposition to ambitious climate action. In the U.S., the Republican party’s consistent unwillingness to act on climate presents a significant obstacle to sustaining necessary political will over time. Even if Democrats keep control of the White House and push forward with administrative action on behalf of climate mitigation, Republican resistance at the state level will need to be confronted head on, with real political costs. In China, top-level support for aggressive climate action is unlikely to be shared by provincial officials, who may feel themselves politically unable to sacrifice any amount of economic growth on behalf of climate goals, and who will also face daunting technical challenges. In both countries, the divergence between the willingness to pay and the incidence of costs create thorny political problems that will hang over climate policy for many years to come. Leaders should think about how to constructively address these problems directly rather than hoping they will naturally dissipate over time.

Read the full paper here.

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