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The Paris Agreement: Security Threats Hiding Within the Reporting System

By Justin Tobey

As the overwhelming majority of climate scientists understand, the Earth’s climate is changing as a result of humankind’s emissions of greenhouse gases. At the time of this writing in the fall of 2020, the average global temperature has already risen from preindustrial levels by about 1° C. In recent years, this has manifested in devastating phenomena such as record-setting wildfires in California, as well as an increased incidence of powerful Category 5 Atlantic hurricanes, seven of which have occurred in just the past five years.

In July 2020, the US National Intelligence Council put together a report detailing the world’s increasing water insecurity problem. The report examines the next 30 years of water security challenges, noting that by 2050 demand for water will have increased by 20-50%, while the available quantity and quality of water is expected to decrease. While there are many causes of the breakdown in water security, the report notes that “[a]nthropogenic degradation of landscapes and waterscapes and climate change are effecting [sic] the quantity, quality, and timing of water supplies.” The expected repercussions of this uptick in water insecurity are widespread, “including personal security, economic growth, political stability, and interstate conflict.”

In recognition of the dangers presented by out-of-control anthropogenic climate change, in 2015 a majority of the world’s countries negotiated the Paris Climate Agreement. The Paris Agreement sets a top limit of 2° C average global temperature increase, with a more aspirational 1.5° C goal, if possible. However, the Agreement contains no mandatory cuts to emissions. Instead, Paris takes a bottom-up approach, allowing member states to craft their own greenhouse gas emission policies in the hopes that these policies will allow us to reach our collective goals.

Article 4(2) of the Paris Agreement holds that “[e]ach Party shall prepare, communicate, and maintain successive nationally determined contributions that it intends to achieve. Parties shall pursue domestic mitigation measures, with the aim of achieving the objectives of such contributions.” Article 4(12) later holds that these nationally determined contributions (NDCs) “shall be recorded in a public registry maintained by the secretariat.” In addition to simply maintaining a registry of these NDCs, the secretariat also occasionally releases reports on the synthesized outcome of the various NDCs.

One problem with the NDC system is the lack of clarity behind its reporting metrics. As an example, Russia’s NDC is reported based around 1990 emissions, Pakistan’s NDC is reported in reductions from a business as usual (BAU) model, and India’s NDC is reported in terms of reductions in its emissions-to-GDP ratio. While all three are framed in the language of “reductions,” the truth is that all three countries’ NDCs represent substantial increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

While the confusing variety of reporting metrics is a real issue, an even bigger problem with the NDC system is the optimism with which the secretariat synthesizes member states’ contributions. In 2016, the secretariat published a document entitled “Aggregate effect of intended nationally determined contributions: an update.” This document refers to “intended” NDCs, or INDCs, because in 2016 many countries had not submitted their official NDCs yet, so the report works from early drafts of these proposed contributions. Among the most striking aspects of this report is the absence of any mention of scenarios that would represent a failure of the Agreement: post-2° C warming, a stark contrast to the NIC’s water security report, which is itself only one facet of the international security crisis posed by climate change.

While the aggregate impact report certainly acknowledges that current INDCs are not sufficient to keep global average temperature rise below 2° C, the inadequacy of present INDCs is expressed in terms of the need for more ambitious goals in the future, premised on a kind of certainty that we will meet the overall goal. The document states that even if ambitions are not raised before 2030, “the possibility of keeping global average temperature increase below 2° C still remains. However, the scenarios in AR5 (IPCC Fifth Assessment Report) indicate that this could be achieved only at substantially higher annual emission reduction rates and cost . . .”

While at face value this language sounds reasonable and even hopeful, it hides data that would suggest the kinds of course-correcting changes we would need in 2030 are wildly unrealistic. A chart in the report, included below, compares the pre-Paris and INDC greenhouse gas emission trajectories to those required to maintain 1.5° C and 2° C warming, respectively. While the business-as-usual and the INDC trajectories still trend slightly upward, the 1.5° and 2° C trajectories dip down. The first INDC chart line stops at 2030, turning into the then-necessary even steeper cuts. The question is, if countries are unable to commit to the gentler climb-down in emissions that is possible now, why can we trust that the even more severe cuts the report imagines will abruptly take hold in 2030? Why is it that the NIC report mentioned above is able to make projections to 2050, but the Paris secretariat finds itself unable or unwilling to do so?

While of course the secretariat cannot control the NDCs or INDCs of member states under the agreement, the aggregate impact report would do well to provide a continuation of the current trajectories past 2030, not just the best-case-scenario idealized cuts required after that year. In the document’s present form, we know that the states’ commitments are insufficient to meet our collective goals, but we do not know by how much. On current track, are we heading into a 3° C world? A 4° C world? 5° C?

It is vital that the major governments of the world, and their peoples, are clear-eyed and informed about the prospects under the current NDCs. However, with blinders over our eyes past 2030, the likelihood and the stakes of a failure of the Paris Agreement are unclear. Perhaps with clearer projections of those 3° C, 4° C, or 5° C possibilities, the political will would exist to get the next round of NDCs at a level more closely resembling the ideal trajectories, in blue and green below. While hardly a panacea to our climate change disaster, this would constitute a step in the right direction by the secretariat without requiring any of the politically unfeasible mandatory emission-cutting obligations that environmentalists prefer, but states will not agree to.


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