Q: Will the Paris climate accord save the planet? A: No. It’s just a start.


Michael Vandenbergh, David Daniels Allen Professor of Law, and Jonathan Gilligan, associate professor of Earth and environmental sciences, explain why private-sector action is essential to close the “Paris gap” in this Q & A excerpted from their article published online by The Conversation and Salon.

Under the Paris climate accord, most world governments agreed to cooperate to reduce carbon emissions to slow the increase in global temperature. Will the agreement mitigate the worst effects of climate change?

No. Without additional steps, the world will fall far short of even the modest goal established in the Paris climate accord. We call this the “Paris gap”—the difference between what the Paris agreement will actually achieve over the next decade if all countries fully comply with their commitments and the total reduction in carbon emissions required to keep the global temperature from increasing more than 2.5°Celsius.

The Paris gap is so large that waiting a full decade for additional national commitments is very risky. Although no one can predict all the effects of a global temperature increase of 3°Celsius or more, an increase in this range will almost certainly amplify the frequency and severity of deadly heat waves around the world. It will also increase the likelihood of crossing tipping points that could make the consequences of climate change, such as sea level rise, much worse.

So how should we close the Paris gap?

Until now, global climate change efforts have largely focused on actions by national, regional and local governments, which are critical to closing the gap. But private-sector actors, including corporations, private citizens and nonprofit, can also make important contributions.

Private actors already played an important role by pushing nations to make commitments in Paris. Now many are also taking the initiative to reduce their emissions, independently of government policies. Corporations are investing in research and development, increasing their energy efficiency, and insisting on emissions reductions from suppliers. Individuals can contribute by improving the energy efficiency of their homes, which also saves money. Utilities can help by providing their customers with real-time data on their energy use. When companies and individuals make better choices about energy use, that has a significant impact.

What effect has the U.S. pullout from the Paris climate accord had on other governments worldwide?

Many other countries—along with cities and states in the U.S.—are increasing their commitments to address climate change. But even if all remaining participating nations do their part, governments alone cannot substantially reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change. That’s why the private sector plays such an important role.

If the Paris climate accord will not yield emissions reductions significant enough to mitigate climate change, why is it so important?

With or without the United States, the Paris agreement demonstrates that, worldwide, governments can work cooperatively together to set goals and take important steps. To prevent the worst effects of climate change, both private-sector entitles and governments must step forward together in a global effort.

Vanderbilt Law Magazine Winter 2018