In the spotlight

More roads lead to compliance with the Paris Climate Agreement

The Paris Agreement represents a turning point in the approach to the climate problem. Everyone agrees on that point. However, international agreements alone will not solve the climate problem; all of the signatories must set solid targets for CO2 reduction and fulfil their promises.

Compliance is indeed a point of concern. During the signing of the agreement, doubts were already surfacing about the possibility of holding countries to the Paris agreement. As a general rule, international treaties are tough to enforce. There are insufficient formal options to force countries to fulfil the promise they made by signing.

No formal sanctions

Of course, countries can call one another to account if they think a signatory is not observing the agreements. Internationally, however, there is considerable unwillingness formally to criticise each other, and states do not relish agreeing sanctions for participants who fail to keep to their agreements.

That every effort should be made to encourage compliance, for example, was demonstrated by a recent UN report in the run-up to the climate conference in Bonn, Germany (COP23). The report concludes that governments and businesses urgently need to raise their ambitions to ensure that the objectives from the Paris Agreement are still achieved. After analysing the new cabinet's ruling agreement (website in Dutch) at the end of October, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) concluded that the Netherlands also needs to do much more. The PBL advises the Dutch government on all matters pertaining to the environment and climate. Apparently, not only has the target for 2030 gone down by a quarter of a percentage point, but also – due to the climate actions in the Rutte III Coalition Agreement – only half of the new target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be achieved.

Alternative solutions

Besides formal or legal paths at international level, other solutions exist to ensure that countries do not get away with either doing nothing or only making half-hearted efforts to address climate change. Wageningen public administration expert Sylvia Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen co-published a scientific article in which she describes these possibilities. In this article, which appeared in Climate Policy at the end of July, Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen and her colleagues look beyond international laws and treaties and analyse the potential role of social forces.

What is important to know is that the Paris Agreement asks that every country determine what it will contribute to resolving the climate issue. Each country must set goals and draught policies and legislation. Whether a country wants to take sufficient effort is evidenced by how ambitious and effective their national climate policy and legislation will be and will remain over the coming decades. The latter is also important because global warming will require our attention for decades. In addition, a country must, of course, implement their policies.

The new normal

An initial route to ensure that countries keep to the Paris Agreement depends on whether climate agreement compliance becomes the norm. Countries want neither to lose face nor to be left behind, and they will work harder to do their best if others they respect do the same. Only a limited number of countries will ignore being internationally named and shamed, and still others will want to show moral leadership.

A second route wends through national institutions and, in the case of the Netherlands, also via European institutions. European countries often pull together on climate issues and negotiate amongst each other over how much each country should contribute to the collective goal. Consider, for example, institutions like the parliament, inspection agencies and other legal bodies. They can play a key role in formulating the national or European contributions to reduce CO2 emissions and to develop effective policies and legislation. Finally, in a democratic system, a government must account for its policy. These bodies must subsequently act to enforce these policies.

The role of society

The third route sees an explicit role for society: individuals, civic organisations and scientists. At climate conferences and on international forums and social media, many non-governmental organisations assess countries on their efforts and alert them to their responsibilities. The power of these types of public parties depends on how well they can perform their own research, set up campaigns and win the support of policymakers. It is also essential that traditional media report on these activities and that governments give citizens plenty of scope to manoeuvre and rebel.

An interesting example of just such freedom is the court case brought by the Urgenda Foundation against the Dutch State (website in Dutch). The Urgenda Foundation launched the court case in 2013 because it found that the State took too little action to prevent the threat of climate change. As part of its claim, the organisation referred to the UN climate treaty concluded in 1992(!) – a framework treaty to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions – to which the Netherlands was a signatory and which entered into force in 1994. In the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (website in Dutch) – the precursor to the Paris Agreement – reduction percentages were set for each country. In the first instance, the judge agreed with the Urgenda Foundation. The case is currently under appeal.

An independent body

Finally, a country can form an independent body to which the government should hold itself accountable and which the government controls. Sweden, for example, is taking its first steps in this direction in their climate policy framework. Establishing such a body may also help prevent political shifts and changes in public opinion from undermining compliance with international climate agreements.

According to a study conducted in the UK, the solution to the climate problem must remain on the agenda. In 2008, the UK adopted fairly advanced climate legislation. Four years later, the conclusion had to be drawn that the subject of climate change had disappeared altogether from the agenda. The NGOs that had worked to create the law were engaged in other matters.

A climate watchdog

The Paris Agreement, therefore, also requires watchdogs, even if institutions are subsequently founded to monitor the government. Citizens and public organisations will have to keep their government to the climate promises. There is also a role for the media to play, as indicated previously.

Flooding of the IJssel river
Flooding of the IJssel river

If we cannot halt the rising temperature, we will all pay the price. That knowledge, however, paired with knowledge about how to comply with the Paris Climate Agreement can help increase the overall sense of urgency. It may ultimately lead countries to see past their concerns about the possible establishment of an international supervisory body.

The scientific community and society, therefore, must not focus solely on the formal routes. We as citizens must also continue to encourage our governments to honour their climate promises.