The Paris Agreement Is Working … For Now

The world’s much-maligned climate treaty has produced some stunning results.

An image of a crowded room for the UN climate conference
Andrew Burton / Getty

This week, tens of thousands of diplomats, activists, and world leaders are gathering in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, for the annual United Nations climate summit, known as COP27. They’re meeting to discuss the ongoing implementation of the Paris Agreement, the global climate treaty that was finalized in 2015. The key issue is likely to be the pact’s “loss and damage” provisions—diplomatic shorthand for whether rich countries, which have emitted the bulk of carbon pollution into the atmosphere, should reimburse poor countries facing climate-change-intensified disasters. It’s one of the most controversial issues at the climate talks, and negotiators have kicked it down the road at each of the past handful of UN negotiations.

But the talks will also refocus attention on the Paris Agreement more broadly, and the international process that it jump-started seven years ago. The treaty, which is voluntary and nonbinding, has never been particularly revered: Many climate activists believe it doesn’t go far enough—its text doesn’t even mention fossil fuels, which cause climate change, by name—while climate-change-doubting politicians have demonized it. Yet its apparent mediocrity has hidden an important story that has played out slowly over the past few years. The Paris Agreement process seems to be working … at least for now.

Let’s refresh how the main process of the Paris Agreement is supposed to work. Every few years, each country makes a new pledge about how much it will cut emissions. A few years after making their pledges, negotiators gather at COP for a “global stocktaking” of how they did. There’s no penalty for not hitting your target; the only punishment is getting “named and shamed” by other attendees, nonprofits, and the press. Then the cycle restarts, and countries make new, more ambitious pledges. This current conference is taking place in an “off” year for this cycle, when negotiators hash out other parts of the Paris Agreement or revisit other climate commitments.

There’s no particular reason to think that the process should work. The Paris Agreement is little more than a global procedural requirement—a voluntary commitment by every country in the world to do the same homework assignment. And it is not how earlier international environmental treaties worked. The Montreal Protocol, for instance, which successfully phased out the use of ozone-depleting pollutants, worked by imposing a de facto command-and-control scheme across the global economy, limiting how much of certain chemicals could be made and how they could be traded.

But the world has made more progress on climate change over the past few years than it did in the 25 years prior. As David Wallace-Wells recently noted in The New York Times, the world has significantly reduced the possibility of some of the most catastrophic climate outcomes. That’s partially because of technological improvements in wind, solar, and batteries. But it’s also because of a new urgency in how climate change has been discussed since 2015, and since 2018 in particular. You can see the urgency nearly everywhere you look: Since 2020, China has committed to its first net-zero target, the United States has passed the first substantive climate legislation in its history, and the European Union has committed at least 1 trillion euros to a new vision of its economy that it calls the “European Green Deal.”

Why is that? This is going to sound weird, but so far the Paris process is managing climate change because it has created a space to manage climate change. It has made a zone of peaceful competition, collaboration, and one-upmanship that stands apart from the rest of international politics. Consider that when the U.S. announced it would withdraw from the Paris Agreement at the beginning of the Trump administration, climate advocates worried that the treaty process would fall apart and other countries would pull out. Yet it did not, and they did not.

If anything, the process was stronger when the U.S. rejoined last year. That’s partially because mayors, blue-state governors, and some of the country’s largest companies went into overdrive to hold up the spirit of the pact, but it’s also because the rest of the world used Trump’s departure as an opportunity to show up Trump. And as the political scientists Michaël Aklin and Matto Mildenberger have observed, it’s also because the Paris process—and the COPs themselves—allow pro-climate-action groups in each country to coordinate with pro-climate-action groups in other countries. (This often happens through the trade or finance-related talks that happen off to the side of the conference.)

Watching the Paris talks play out, I’ve started to wonder if they meet the philosopher and polymath Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s definition of antifragility—systems that get stronger as they are subjected to shocks and volatility. And yet, it’s possible that for all that the Paris Agreement has done, we’ve now reached the high point for the treaty. Countries, after all, are starting to tackle the trickiest issue at COP—the issue of loss and damage, or as former U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson derisively called it on Monday, climate “reparations.” The treaty process is only antifragile as long as countries have something to collaborate on; if parties or movements in several large countries decide they want nothing to do with climate action, then it could wither.

That possibility got likelier after last night’s midterm elections in the U.S. The red wave did not materialize, but the GOP could still win a robust trifecta, giving it control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, as soon as 2024. Even another American withdrawal—or a U.S. attempt to defund certain UN agencies—might not be enough to disturb the Paris process. But combined with an anti-climate or far-right turn elsewhere in the world—in China, perhaps, or Europe—then it might be enough.

Climate-related pledges work only when some plurality of the world’s largest polluters get together to make them. The U.S., as Republican politicians continually remind us, emits only a fraction of the world’s annual carbon pollution. But were it to depart Paris along with China and several European countries, then it could do real damage. Earlier this year, I said we might be in a golden age of climate action. But Eden only seemed like Eden after the Fall.