New Playbook on Climate Change Sets Paris Agreement in Motion

January 03, 2019

A recently approved rulebook for implementing the Paris Agreement lays the groundwork for how countries can report their progress on counteracting climate change—but will they actually be held accountable? While the rulebook requires countries to record and report on their emissions, and progress in cutting them, there is no mechanism for penalties for not doing so.

World delegates convened in Katowice, Poland in December, spending two weeks negotiating a new “rulebook” for navigating climate change, which nearly 200 countries (including the United States) approved on December 15. The rulebook will govern how nations will implement the Paris Agreement that 175 parties (174 countries plus the European Union) signed in 2015. These signatories approved the Paris Agreement with the central purpose of curbing global warming by limiting temperature rise in this century to 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels—the threshold that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned will cause catastrophic global impacts, including severe storm events, scorching heat waves, sea level rise, mass species extinction, and extended droughts, if crossed. While the Paris Agreement declared a collective agreement to reduce anthropogenic impacts on the climate, it did not spell out how countries would reach that goal. The new rulebook now lays the groundwork for that “how.”

What the Rulebook Does

The rulebook provides a universal playbook for how countries may quantify, track, and report their emission reduction contributions. One chief provision is a requirement that countries issue “biennial transparency reports,” which should provide information necessary to track each country’s carbon-cutting progress. A technical team will then verify whether a country has met its promises, and a compliance committee will consider consequences if a country has not reported its progress or has failed to meet its promises. Every five years, countries will also evaluate their collective progress toward meeting the Paris Agreement goals.

Climate change activists have questioned, however, whether these measures will be enough. Among its critics, the New Climate Institute has complained that the rulebook is “grossly insufficient for the task at hand,” pointing out that the framework relies completely on countries’ self-selected contributions. Indeed, country-specific recommendations on areas of improvement were explicitly ruled out. Further, while a country may face consequences if it fails to meet its self-imposed pledge, any such consequences will be “non-adversarial and non-punitive,” with no mechanism to impose penalties. The rulebook also gives no guidance on two issues that may prove significant in achieving full buy-in from many carbon-dependent countries: (1) carbon credits and trading, and (2) a framework to delineate a level of financial aid for developing countries—decisions that have been delayed until November 2019 and November 2020, respectively.

Still, while the rulebook provides no immediate incentive for individual countries to implement ambitious reduction goals at home, it takes a step in the right direction by requiring each country to record and report on its emissions and describe its progress in cutting them.

What This Means for the United States

While the Trump administration announced earlier this year that it will withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, per the terms of the agreement, the earliest date the United States can formally withdraw is late 2020. Article 28 of the Paris Agreement specifies that a country cannot withdraw from the agreement for three years from the date the agreement has “entered into force,” after which there is an additional one-year waiting period for the withdrawal to take full effect. The agreement entered into force for the United States on November 4, 2016, which means that the earliest date the administration can initiate the withdrawal process is November 4, 2019, with full withdrawal not effective until November 4, 2020—one day after the next presidential election. Withdrawal from the agreement is not final as a country may rejoin. In the meantime, the United States remains involved in negotiations and is bound to comply with the new rulebook.


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