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How Change Happens$

Duncan Green

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780198785392

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198785392.001.0001

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Case Study

Case Study

The December 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change

Case Study
How Change Happens

Duncan Green

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

On 12 December 2015, more than 190 countries made pledges to cut emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs), covering 94 per cent of the world’s GHG emissions. They also adopted language calling for efforts towards a 1.5 degree limit to global warming—the upper boundary of safety for many fragile island states and Least Developed Countries....


On 12 December 2015, more than 190 countries made pledges to cut emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs), covering 94 per cent of the world’s GHG emissions. They also adopted language calling for efforts towards a 1.5 degree limit to global warming—the upper boundary of safety for many fragile island states and Least Developed Countries.1 After twenty-one years of hard negotiations and six years after the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks ended in disarray, this was a remarkable turnaround. How did it happen? This short case study uses the various chapters and themes in this book to unpack the story of Paris.2

Contextual drivers of change

There were three major changes in the context that made Paris such a contrast to Copenhagen.

(p.172) The first, and single most important factor was a US–China joint announcement on climate change at the end of 2014,3 pledging new targets to cut emissions—notably in China’s case to peak emissions by 2030—and to work together for a successful outcome in Paris. With the two biggest GHG emitters on board, an agreement of some kind started to look inevitable. Domestic factors drove both leaders to sign up: on the Chinese side, a smog crisis in Beijing and other cities had shown the environmental limits of China’s development model, and especially its reliance on coal. In addition, as China upgrades its economy, its leaders are now keen to move from dirty, low-tech industry to higher value sectors, including renewables.

In the US, President Obama, who had worked to make Copenhagen a success, received much more public backing in the run-up to Paris. Climate activists had pursued an insider strategy prior to Copenhagen, trying to persuade fossil fuel companies to support domestic cap and trade laws, which failed. Since then, they opted for more outsider tactics, building a grassroots movement, with the Keystone pipeline as its iconic issue, which provided the Obama administration with the political room to manoeuvre. In addition, since President Obama was approaching the end of his period in office, and had largely given up on winning bipartisan action from Congress, he was more willing to pursue reform through executive action.

The second major shift occurred within the private sector. In Copenhagen, the fossil fuel lobby dominated the private sector presence. In Paris, for the first time there was a powerful and credible countervailing force to the blockers of the fossil fuel lobby: Hundreds of companies and CEOs made pledges to reduce their own carbon footprint and called for governments to set more ambitious targets. Business supported a price on carbon and called for an end to fossil fuels subsidies. Credit for the shift goes to the leadership of individual (p.173) companies and CEOs (Ikea and Unilever among them) swayed by growing concerns about the economic impact of climate change.

The third major shift occurred at the intersection of economics and technology: a dramatic change in prices, with the cost of renewable energy falling much faster than predicted. Through a combination of technological innovation and economies of scale, the price of solar power fell by 50 per cent from 2010 to 2014.4

Secondary factors added momentum to the train set moving by the US–China announcement: activist pressure, for example, the September 2014 People’s Climate March in New York, reenergized the public; outstanding French diplomacy dealt with ‘hot potato issues’ well in advance of Paris; a May 2015 Papal Encyclical, ‘Care for Our Common Home’,5 galvanized Roman Catholics and other faith communities (and may lead to longer-term shifts in social norms and personal behaviour).

The debate over climate science seemed less significant in Paris than in Copenhagen, perhaps because the deniers had lost the argument, so that debates could shift to the real and thorny problems of implementation.

The main players

In addition to leadership from the US and China, a number of groupings of developed and developing countries shaped the Paris process. These included the ‘Climate Vulnerable Forum’, led by the Philippines, which was instrumental in winning the reference to a 1.5 degree target, and to establishing action to address the ‘loss and damage’ experienced by poor countries as a fundamental element in the new climate (p.174) regime. The Pacific Islands, in particular Tony de Brun, foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, also played a prominent role.

The underlying geopolitics of the transition from Copenhagen to Paris saw the establishment of a new paradigm, replacing the Kyoto Protocol’s division of the world into North (Annex 1) and South (Non-Annex 1), in which only Annex 1 countries were obliged to cut emissions. In Paris, by contrast, all countries made commitments, with emerging powers like China and India being some of the most ambitious.

Critical junctures

In the run up to Paris, a number of weather events helped build a consensus for action. In particular, a series of major climate-related disasters affected the big economies (US, Australia, Russia) as well as poor countries, building recognition that ‘we are all in this together’. But the most important critical juncture had nothing to do with the climate: the appalling 13 November terrorist attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people, generated worldwide condemnation but also a determination to show solidarity with France who hosted the climate conference only weeks later.6

Systems thinking: a 21st century international agreement?

According to Christiana Figueres, the UN’s lead climate change official and one of the unsung heroes of the Paris Agreement, ‘Climate change is a good example of how we are moving to a completely new social contract from the last century.’7

(p.175) First, the Paris Agreement recognizes that today’s international system is much more complex than the inter-state arrangements of previous decades. Unlike other negotiations, the Paris climate talks involved governments, business leaders, city councils, civil society organizations, and others in prominent roles. The ‘We Mean Business’ private sector coalition claimed to have 100 lobbyists using their script in Paris, while 450 mayors held a parallel summit where they made their own climate commitments.

Second, countries agreed a ‘review and ratchet’ approach in which they each will take stock every five years and update their efforts: each national target must go further than previous commitments. Action to decarbonize the economy can thus evolve in line with changing evidence, technology, and economic capacity. Binding commitments, in contrast, would have set in stone a set of negotiated (and probably minimum acceptable) commitments that would then have been difficult to renegotiate. (It was the attempt to agree binding targets that destroyed the Copenhagen talks.)

At least that is the optimistic view. The Paris Agreement also provides ample room for foot dragging and bad faith, and it is yet to be seen whether the review and ratchet mechanism produces enough action to keep climate change within acceptable limits. (p.176)


(1) For more detailed analysis, see ‘Oxfam’s Initial analysis of the Paris Agreement: What will the Paris Agreement be remembered for?’, https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/oxfams-initial-analysis-paris-agreement.

(2) Summary of a longer case study paper by Duncan Green and Tim Gore, to be published on the How Change Happens website.

(3) ‘U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change’, 11 November 2014, press release, The White House, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/11/11/us-china-joint-announcement-climate-change.

(4) Irena, Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2014, January 2015.

(5) ‘Encyclical Letter Laudato si’ of the Holy Father Francis on Care for our Common Home’ Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2015, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.

(7) Suzanne Goldenberg, ‘Paris climate deal offers flame of hope, says UN official’, The Guardian, 17 January 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jan/17/paris-climate-deal-flame-of-hope-diplomacy-christiana-figueres.