The Paris Agreement Is Working … For Now


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

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.

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The Atlantic, 10-11-22