Leveraging the Ratchet Mechanism: Why 2020 is our Chance to Globally Strengthen National Climate Policy

Despite the Paris Agreement’s creation of targets aiming to limit global temperature increase to 1.5C, scientists continue to project that warming will exceed 3C by the end of the century. How can activists leverage the Paris Agreement’s built-in mechanisms to build global momentum supporting the implementation of national policies that will improve our chances of meeting the Paris targets?

As the COP25 climate conference approaches, so too does the four-year anniversary of countries signing the Paris Agreement. The post-Agreement satisfaction collectively felt in 2015 has faded as we’ve awoken to the reality that governments are much more willing to set targets than they are to enact the necessary policies to reach them. The Paris Agreement is in danger – and with no clear accountability mechanisms, it’s at risk of quietly fading into obscurity. How, then, can we save it from the graveyard of failed multilateral instruments – a fate met by numerous other ambitious agreements?

Let’s start with some context on the Paris Agreement. Formed under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015 by 197 countries. Its core aim is to coordinate nations towards strengthening national climate policies in order to limit global temperature rise to 2° C over pre-industrial levels, and pursue further efforts to limit warming to a more ambitious 1.5° C. The climate change mitigation targets contained in the Paris Agreement actually differ from country to country: these targets, called nationally determined contributions (NDCs), specify what each country feels they are able to contribute to global mitigation efforts.

At first glance, this may sound like a weak approach – and it is. But there’s a good reason that the Agreement was formulated this way: it was the best that negotiators could manage at the time, given the failures of earlier attempts in Kyoto and Copenhagen to negotiate and impose targets on unwilling countries. So though a top-down approach could result in better outcomes, such an instrument would not be effective at all if parties aren’t willing to sign on to it. Thus, the Paris Agreement reflects a shift to a bottom-up approach in which countries pledge to the UNFCCC commitments they’ve formulated themselves and are comfortable making.

As you can imagine, climate change mitigation targets governments are comfortable with making are, generally speaking, not sufficiently ambitious. As 2019 draws to a close, not only are the vast majority of countries not on track to meet Paris Agreement warming limit targets – they’re not even on track to meet their already-inadequate NDCs. According to data published in September 2019 by the Climate Action Tracker research group, under currently existing national policies, it’s projected that the world will exceed 1.5° C of warming by 2035 and reach 3.2° C of warming by the end of the century. Dismally, Paris Agreement targets barely improve this business as usual scenario: under current NDC targets, warming is expected to reach 2.9° C by the end of the century. Despite this poor performance, the Paris Agreement isn’t useless. It’s far, far better than nothing – and if climate activists are crafty, we can use its mechanisms to our advantage. 2020 provides us with the perfect opportunity to do this.

A core component of the Paris Agreement is the ratchet mechanism. Also referred to as the ambition mechanism, this component of the Paris Agreement mandates that governments resubmit a new set of NDCs every five years, which are required to be more ambitious than the country’s previous set. Because the agreement was signed in 2015, 2020 will be the first instance of this ratcheting-up. So far, only one country has submitted their second round of NDCs. This mandatory rise in ambition provides a rare policy window for activists to devote focused, intensive efforts towards pressuring governments to significantly raise the ambition of their NDCs.

Governments are likely to continue to set climate targets at the lowest level of ambition they can get away with. Indeed, the ratcheting-up mechanism requires that NDCs must increase in ambition, but the Agreement doesn’t specify the degree to which they must increase. Nothing is stopping governments from doing the bare minimum. This provides activists with an opening: because national governments are obligated to improve their NDCs, we should to capitalize on this opportunity by making specific demands. These demands should apply pressure to governments through two channels: pushing for science-based, Agreement-compliant targets; and advocating for the adoption of new policies that allow us to meet these targets.

Setting Paris-compliant targets to limit warming will necessitate a shift in how governments calculate their intended emission reductions. Currently, most countries communicate their NDCs through commitments to reduce their emissions by some percentage by 2030. This approach should be inverted: when deciding on their second round of NDCs, governments should start with the desired warming limit of 2° C (or the more ambitious 1.5° C) and work backwards to determine the required reduction in domestic emissions. Some countries have already made commitments external to their Paris Agreement NDCs in this fashion: 77 countries so far have announced intentions to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Few have announced corresponding implementation plans for this target.

Following the calculation of required emission reductions, the policies to achieve the reduction must be swiftly committed to and implemented. The policy pathway to reach the target of limiting warming differs for every country, depending on factors like energy mix, industry, and transportation habits. But the IPCC special report is clear: governments must undertake deep decarbonization efforts across all sectors to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 to limit warming to 1.5° C, or by 2070 to limit warming to 2° C.

All of this work may amount to nothing; in fact, it may be downright probable that governments will continue to ignore activists demanding stronger climate policy. While the ratcheting-up requirement doesn’t provide us with a guarantee of limiting global temperature rise to less-disastrous levels, it does offer us a rare opportunity to rally focused support and make specific demands for more ambitious policies. And in this frustrating and demoralizing world of climate activism, we ought to seize whatever opportunities we get.

Megan Mattes is a second-year Master of Public Policy student at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. She is currently on exchange at the Hertie School. Her research interests include climate policy, wealth inequality, and democratic reform. Find her on Twitter: @meganjmattes