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A Climate Accord Based on Global Peer Pressure

DEC. 14, 2014


LIMA, Peru — Shortly before 2 a.m. on Sunday, after more than 36 straight hours of negotiations, top officials from nearly 200 nations agreed to the first deal committing every country in the world to reducing the fossil fuel emissions that cause global warming.

In its structure, the deal represents a breakthrough in the two-decade effort to forge a significant global pact to fight climate change. The Lima Accord, as it is known, is the first time that all nations — rich and poor — have agreed to cut back on the burning oil, gas and coal.

But the driving force behind the new deal was not the threat of sanctions or other legal consequences. It was global peer pressure. And over the coming months, it will start to become evident whether the scrutiny of the rest of the world is enough to pressure world leaders to push through new global warming laws from New Delhi to Moscow or if, as a political force, international reproach is impotent.

The strength of the accord — the fact that it includes pledges by every country to put forward a plan to reduce emissions at home — is also its greatest weakness. In order to get every country to agree to the deal, including the United States, the world’s largest historic carbon polluter, the Lima Accord does not include legally binding requirements that countries cut their emissions by any particular amount.

Instead, each nation will agree to enact domestic laws to reduce carbon emissions and put forth a plan by March 31 laying out how much each one will cut after 2020 and what domestic policies it will pass to achieve the cuts.

Countries that miss the March deadline will be expected to put forth their plans by June. The plans from every country, known within the United Nations as “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions,” will form the basis of a sweeping new deal to be signed in Paris in 2015.

By asking countries to put forward plans dictated by their own economies and domestic politics, rather than a top-down mandate, the Lima Accord helped secure the agreement of every nation to some kind of carbon-cutting action, experts say.

But with no language requiring the significant cuts scientists say are needed to stave off the costly effects of global warming, countries can put forth weak plans that amount to little more than business as usual. Countries can even choose to ignore the deal and submit no plan at all.

“If a country doesn’t submit a plan, there will be no punishment, no fine, no black U.N. helicopters showing up,” said Jennifer Morgan, an expert on climate negotiations with the World Resources Institute, a research organization.

Instead the architects of the plan, including top White House officials, hope that the agreement will compel countries to act to avoid international condemnation.

“It relies on a lot of peer pressure,” Ms. Morgan said.

The structure of the deal is what political scientists often call a “name-and-shame” plan.

Under the Lima Accord all countries must submit plans that would be posted on a United Nations website and made available to the public.

A requirement that all countries submit plans using identical metrics, for easy comparison, was deleted from the accord because of the objection of developing nations.

“What’s essential for naming and shaming is that the individual contributions be comparable,” said Robert Stavins, a professor of Environmental Economics at Harvard University.

But already, a number of research groups and universities expect to crunch the numbers of the plans, producing apples-to-apples assessments. The hope, negotiators said, is that as the numbers and commitments of each country are publicized, compared and discussed, countries will be shamed by the spotlight into proposing and enacting stronger plans.

“We see the sunlight as one of the most important parts of this,” said Todd D. Stern, the senior climate-change negotiator for President Obama.

The motivations of the world leaders and whether they care about those assessments are essential to the success of the deal.

Mr. Obama wants to sign on to the plan because he sees his role in fighting climate change as a cornerstone of his legacy, both he and his advisers say. But whether the United States will follow through on his commitment depends on whether his successors and fellow politicians feel the same.

The president has pledged that the United States will cut emissions by as much as 28 percent by 2025. The nation can achieve some of that under new regulations of tailpipe and power plant emissions enacted by his administration.

But further laws or regulations, enacted after Mr. Obama leaves office, must be put in place for the United States to meet its pledge, experts say. Most in the emerging field of Republican presidential contenders have come out fiercely against Mr. Obama’s domestic climate-change policies, and they may not be swayed by international scorn if the United States does not follow through on its Lima pledge.

In China, the political motivations for reducing emissions are more internal. China’s president, Xi Jinping, has pledged that China’s emissions will peak by 2030 and decline after that. To meet that goal, the Chinese government is looking into creating a national cap-and-trade system by 2016 that would force polluters to pay for their greenhouse gas emissions.

But China was driven to cut pollution largely to quell domestic unrest, as citizens protested against the increasingly bad air caused by coal power production. The previous decade of international criticism, as China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest polluter, did not compel it to take domestic action.

There is much speculation about how India, the world’s third largest carbon polluter, will respond. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has declared repeatedly that his top priority is economic growth and lifting people out of poverty, even if that means the construction of hundreds of new coal-fired power plants to deliver cheap electricity. Mr. Modi is also seen wanting to resist being viewed as caving in to pressure from Mr. Obama.

In New Delhi, critics have already begun pushing back against the deal.

“The burden of tackling climate change will decisively shift to developing countries, making their efforts toward poverty reduction and sustainable development difficult and expensive,” said Sunita Narain, director of the Centre of Science and Environment, an Indian advocacy group.

However, India’s environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, noted last week in Lima that climate change has already affected his nation, and that his government intends to submit a plan by June that would show how India would lower the rate at which it produces pollution.

Observers are also closely watching Russia, the world’s fifth-largest polluter, for its response to the plan. President Vladimir V. Putin has publicly scoffed at the science of human-caused climate change and shown a willingness to defy international opinion.

But this week in Lima, Russian delegates said that Moscow is at work on an emissions reduction plan.

Climate change policy observers will also closely watch Australia. This year, the Australian government voted to repeal a carbon tax, and the administration of Prime Minister Tony Abbott has also eliminated its Department of Climate Change. On Sunday morning in Lima, as delegates from around the world praised the passage of the Lima Accord, the Australian delegation chose not to make remarks.

Still, the delegation did say it will submit a climate change plan to the United Nations this spring.

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