Paris Accord

Written by, Community Solutions, Thomas Princen

The ink was hardly dry on the Paris accord when critics pointed out that it’s not a binding treaty. Implementation, they say, is the key. Without enforcement, without “teeth,” real progress is doubtful. There are three problems with this interpretation. 

One, changes in international relations occur not when treaties are enforced, as when laws are enforced domestically, but when a consensus, or near consensus, is achieved. Consensus is hard enough among members of a household, a business, a community of like-minded residents. It is mind-bogglingly hard among some 200 nations, especially when the task is to change the course of industrial history—namely, get off fossil fuels. Paris represents a couple of decades of concerted effort to shift the normative structure of modern economies. To expect more is to misunderstand diplomatic practice.

Two, shifts in well-entrenched social norms — domestic and international — start slowly, seem to drag on forever and then pick up momentum. Think abolition, women’s suffrage, human rights, smoking, bans on ozone-depleting substances, trade in the products of endangered species (e.g., ivory and rhino horn), persistent organic pollutants, mile-long drift nets and land mines, and, maybe some day, the elimination of nuclear weapons. Paris is one push on a flywheel that is, oh so slowly, gathering momentum. That flywheel will continue to pick up speed not just because scientists and diplomats do their work but because biophysical conditions are, as much as anything, pushing it too. 

While the agreement did not directly challenge the dominant social organizing principle of growth, nor growth’s enabling principles of efficiency and consumer sovereignty, it did implicitly say that endless material expansion cannot continue. After a couple centuries of fabulously-increasing wealth, much driven by cheap fossil fuels, that shift is no mean feat. And it is far from complete. Paris is a nudge in the right direction.

 Three, it is an open question as to whether the financing needed to implement the agreement can be obtained while simultaneously reducing fossil fuel extraction. Much of the economic wealth of the past century or so can be attributed simply to the ready availability of cheap fossil fuels—cheap economically (price at the pump), cheap energetically (it took little energy to get energy) and cheap environmentally (so many true costs could be externalized with no consequence). That cheapness, energy analysts from industry, government and intergovernmental agencies, not to mention environmental scientists, all seem to agree is coming to an end. With it arguably is the easy wealth, the surplus capital, the extractable revenues that Paris negotiators are relying on to reduce emissions. With the slowing, possibly end, of worldwide economic growth, capital constraint will need to be on the table soon enough.

 What the Paris agreement represents culturally and politically is a dawning realization that fossil fuels themselves, not just emissions, not just impacts, are “the problem.” That is, just as humans have learned that they cannot handle slavery (and be democratic), and ozone-depleting substances (and protect ourselves from ultraviolet radiation), and land mines and so much more, they are learning, again oh so slowly, that they cannot handle fossil fuels, not at these rates. Fossil fuels are not “bad”; they are, after all, perfectly “natural.” We just can’t restrain our use of fossil fuels. 

To avert catastrophic outcomes humanity must start stopping fossil fuel use. Paris is such a start.


Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA

The writer is co-editor of Ending the Fossil Fuel Era, author of Treading Softly and The Logic of Sufficiency  (all MIT Press) and a professor of natural resource policy at the University of Michigan.