The ratification of a historic climate accord in Paris over the weekend was seen by many as a big step towards an era of net-zero emissions. Yet some worry that the actions required to limit global warming to 1.5° Celsius are not legally binding. Skeptics argue that this would effectively allow nation states to drag their feet with no consequences for non-compliance. This perspective undervalues the power of public pressure.

The need to reach legally binding agreements has long been a bone of contention in global negotiations, from the World Trade Organization (WTO) to the Conference of Parties. The results of extended negotiations are all too often null and void, as we saw in Copenhagen in 2009. As the US Congress would be required to ratify legally binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions, this approach in 2015 is a non-starter. The Republican controlled Congress would certainly reject such a ratification.

The alternative – the power to name and shame countries for non-compliance – has the potential to be far more potent.

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An example from the health sector

Two billion people around the world currently lack access to medicines. The Access to Medicines Index, published every two years since 2008, benchmarks the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies on their policies and actions when providing the world’s poor with access to drugs. Reporting to the index is voluntary and results are published publicly by the index, which is an independent body.

Performance in the index has become a business priority as firms compete for prominence and customers take notice. Importantly, the index upgrades indicators in each reporting cycle, ensuring companies do not become complacent. Competition among pharmaceuticals is rife; the index has led companies to take the issue far more seriously than the historic occasional feel-good corporate social responsibility programme with larger commitments and more rigorous reporting of actions on-the-ground.

A model for climate competition

The Paris Agreement bears all the hallmarks of a system of public pressure and global competition. The basic tenets of the agreement aim to limit warming to well below two degrees above pre-industrial levels. The regular review and submission of emission reduction targets is legally binding. While a country’s performance on its commitments cannot be taken to court, results of their efforts are visible to the world.

There are three keys to the success of such a system. The first is a mechanism to ratchet up climate commitments over time. Just as the Access to Medicines Index sets an increasingly challenging benchmark to companies, so the climate agreement has a mechanism for countries to make increasingly bold commitments. Every five years, beginning in 2018, nation states have agreed to meet and review their targets, committing to do more as technology improves, renewable energy costs decline and the effects of climate change become more apparent. Current commitments would only limit warming to 2.7 degrees above pre-industrial levels – so this mechanism is essential.

Secondly, progress on voluntary commitments must be measurable and publicly available. Countries will publish progress on their climate commitments every five years. These can be verified by independent sources.  For instance, the Global Forest Watch has a mechanism to monitor deforestation in near real-time using satellite images – raising red flags to countries and companies when needed. In future, space technology will allow for more systematic, high definition monitoring of carbon emissions, being tested by satellites like the current OCO-2 mission.

Finally, the role of non-government organizations and international institutions remains key. Without public pressure, governments may opt for the easy route – particularly as new politicians with different priorities come to power. The role of the watchdog to name, shame and mobilize citizens is unparalleled in helping politicians stay the course committed to by their predecessors.

The combination of an increasingly stringent COP21 commitment, transparent reporting and growing public pressure from citizens, religions and businesses are strong disincentives for non-compliance. Aspiring to a legally binding commitment that holds countries accountable to emissions targets misses the point. The proposed system will help to keep the pressure on politicians and the biggest emitters by empowering citizens to respond to the decisions and reported progress of government.

Watch the video below to see the consequences of global warming. Data courtesy of Berkeley Earth, Carnegie Mellon University, Google Earth Engine, NASA, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, University of Maryland and USGS.

Author: Gill Cassar, Programme Lead, Environment and Sustainability, World Economic Forum

Image: From L-R, Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius, President-designate of COP21 and French President Francois Hollande react during the final plenary session at the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, December 12, 2015. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe