Is Paris Good or Bad?

What Does Syria Signing onto the Paris Agreement Mean for Global Climate Progress?

Here’s me, shortly after the 2015 climate negotiations, on why the Paris Climate Agreement is good.

And here’s me agreeing with Josh Barro, who says Paris is toothless:

Do I contradict myself? I don’t think so.

Barro was reacting to this week’s news that Syria, following fellow holdouts Iran, Nicaragua, and Nigeria, has signed onto the Paris Agreement. President Trump announced his intention to leave the agreement earlier this year, which would make the United States the only country in the world not formally committed to Paris’s climate goals.

What’s attractive about the Paris Agreement is the same thing some find disappointing about it: it’s pragmatic. Signatory countries pledge to achieve emissions goals equivalent to or slightly better than business-as-usual: in other words, countries pledge to do what’s possible, which may not be inspiring but is also the only known form of effective policy.

As Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovich showed at the New York Times this week, the Paris targets don’t bring us much closer to the increasingly unlikely 2 degree climate target. The flip side of that wet blanket is that Paris is a framework upon which to build future emissions progress.

And climate policy, such as it is, won’t usually be the next or most important step. Remember that emissions have tended to decline more slowly after major climate policies have been enacted than before. Technological change and macroeconomic trends will have far greater impact on emissions than explicit climate policy, so advocates of steeper emissions reductions should focus on technology and macroeconomics (for instance, the speed and nature of the transition to service economies).

At the time of its original signing, I wrote that the Paris Agreement represented the culmination of decades of progress towards a pragmatic, bottom-up, technology-based climate framework. While pragmatism can’t always withstand black swans like President Trump, that remains the case. But even if some future president recommits the United States to Paris, as I think would be preferable, global climate agreements will always be a reflection of technological reality, not a driver of it.