Is America Already Faltering in its Implementation of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement?

Posted on July 19, 2016 by Dan Esty

Twenty-five years ago, as a young EPA official, I was part of the US government team that negotiated the Framework Convention on Climate Change.  In the final weeks running up to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit at which the new climate change treaty was to be presented for signature, I remember being taken aside by the famous Canadian environmental leader, Maurice Strong, who was the Secretary General of that 1992 Earth Summit.  He warned about the limits of international agreements.  Specifically, he urged me to be aware that when hundreds of Presidents, Prime Ministers, and other world leaders gather – as was to be the case at Rio – only two outcomes are possible: success and real success.  For nearly two decades after the 1992 treaty came into effect, we had claims of “success” but little real progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In Paris last December, the world community came together with great fanfare to conclude a new climate change agreement. With its focus on “solutions,” commitment to broader public engagement (going beyond national governments to focus on actions by cities, states, companies, and community groups), creative climate change finance, and metrics to track progress, the 2015 Paris Accord offers a foundation for real success. 

But it is not clear that the requisite follow-through will occur.  In the United States, President Obama’s Clean Power Plan – the central mechanism to drive progress toward a clean energy future – is on hold pending court review.  And there already seems to be some loss of momentum in developing the action plans needed to deliver the on-the-ground changes in behavior in many sectors that will be required to change our nation’s energy trajectory. 

At the core of the limitations in environmental law in the 20th Century was a failure to move from the intentions expressed in statutes, regulations, and international agreements to action.  Words – even ones cast as law – do not alone make change happen.  A concerted focus on implementation is required for real success. 

But significant investments required to deliver a clean energy future will not be forthcoming – particularly in the critical corporate arena -- as long as America’s commitment to decarbonization is clouded by legal and political uncertainties.  While some business sectors, notably the investment world, are moving ahead with actions to address climate change, broader momentum toward a clean energy future will not be fully restored until after the DC Circuit Court’s decision on the Clean Power Plan this Fall and the November election results.