The Sine Qua Non of Climate Diplomacy Georgetown Environmental Law Review


The Sine Qua Non of Climate Diplomacy

By Kevin Spinella, Staff Contributor

Momentum is finally building. Amidst the unlikely backdrop of a historic agreement in November of 2014 between the United States and China to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,[1] expectations loom large for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December of 2015.[2]

The November agreement between the United States and China resulted in commitments to specific courses of action.

“China agreed to cap the peak of its carbon emissions by around 2030,[3] and the United States agreed similarly to cut its carbon emissions by 26% to 28% from 2005 levels.”[4]

Such cooperation between the world’s top polluters and most powerful polities was nothing short of a “game changer” or paradigmatic shift, not only for Sino-US relations, but also for developing necessary international environmental accord to combat global warming.

Accordingly, utilizing the aforementioned Sino-US case as the example, the United Nations Conference aims to foster a comprehensive climate change deal where nations outline their own commitments. These pledges, called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), must be followed by the countries in coming years, yet allow individual countries the autonomy to provide sovereign prescriptions that address the problem of rising local emissions. [5] Whereas a centralized mandate from the United Nations to reduce emissions by a certain amount would likely be ineffective or politically unfeasible, INDCs appeal to the best notions of libertarian paternalism.

“Because their commitments will be viewed in comparison with neighboring or comparable states, countries are implicitly encouraged to take significant measures to reduce emissions, but will have the liberty to do so in a manner that conforms to their own national and economic interests.”

There are, of course, significant hurdles to this approach. Finding a way to incentivize developing countries to participate is a huge challenge. Moreover, India, the third largest emitter, Brazil, Iran, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine, and Pakistan have not yet provided plans to reduce greenhouse emissions.[6] Assuming arguendo that India and others do submit substantially progressive commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which is highly unlikely, aggregate current pledges would still not circumscribe global warming to the 2°C (3.6°F) by 2100, which is necessary to militate against calamitous results for our planet.[7]

“This is not a trivial problem. However, such a deal is necessary, albeit a significantly imperfect first step.”

Rather than waiting for an unlikely alternative deal, when time is a significant constraint, states can begin the process of reducing their emissions head-on with the prospect of revisiting their pledges in accordance with the agreement over time. As technologies progress, and corresponding abilities to move to alternative forms of energy improve, more ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse emissions can be introduced.

I do not expect all, or most, countries to agree to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a significant way at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. However, if an agreement can be reached that broadens the scope of agreement participants to include additional emitting countries beyond the United States and China, then we will have reached a new inflection point, and environmental momentum will continue in a way in which it may be possible for us to slow the insidious tide of climate change.


[1] Press Release, U.S. Department of State, United States and China Strengthen Climate Change Cooperation (June 24, 2015) (on file with author), available at

[2] Justin Worland, Climate Change Negotiators are Undeterred by Slow Progress, Time (Sept. 4, 2015),

[3] Fergus Green and Nicholas Stern, China’s “new normal”: structural change, better growth, and peak emissions, London School of Economics (2015), available at

[4] Worland, supra note 2.

[5] Worland, supra note 2.

[6] Emissions Gap – How close are INDCs to 2 and 1.5°C pathways?, Climate Change Tracker (Sept. 2, 2015),

[7] Worland, supra note 2.

One response to “The Sine Qua Non of Climate Diplomacy Georgetown Environmental Law Review

  1. Pingback: The Sine Qua Non of Climate Diplomacy, Part II | Georgetown Environmental Law Review·

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