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opinion | Maria Ivanova

COP21 proved the power of peer pressure

International officials attended a signing ceremony at the UN Climate Change Conference.
International officials attended a signing ceremony at the UN Climate Change Conference.AP

Critics of the Paris climate agreement point to the lack of certainty that its provisions will be carried out. There is no enforcement mechanism — no hammer. Indeed, the nation-by-nation plans that are the core of the pact are called INDCs — Intended Nationally Determined Contributions — and there can be little assurance they will be implemented.

Supporters of the agreement concede that it relies more on hope than guarantees. But it is a hope made strong by recent experience. In thousands of actions across the globe, entrepreneurs, activists, and even some giant energy conglomerates have taken steps to address climate change that were not mandated, and that cumulatively are making a difference.

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Peru, the host of the 2014 climate conference, launched the Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action, showcasing climate commitments by companies, cities, and investors. A year later in Paris, 11,000 commitments were registered, including 2,250 cities and 150 regions covering 1.25 billion inhabitants, 2,025 companies, 424 investors, and 235 civil society organizations. One third of the 2,000 biggest global companies — with a market value equivalent to the combined GDP of China, Germany, and Japan — committed to climate action. Thousands of leaders traveled to Paris to show their commitment and share solutions. They launched bold initiatives, with catchy titles like “Mission Innovation’’ and “Breakthrough Energy Coalition,’’ and made unprecedented commitments to investment and improvement.

Why the tectonic shift? Significantly, the narrative around climate change has shifted from a story of sacrifice to a story of opportunity. The science is clear and the economics compelling. Cities, states, companies, and countries seek to lead an economic transformation they see as inevitable and irrevocable.

Increasingly, peer pressure has become a powerful force for progress. One hundred and eighty-seven countries have now filed their INDCs, making the agreement truly global. Institutional investors have launched a portfolio decarbonization coalition, surpassing a $600 billion target in just days; universities are divesting from fossil fuels; and 15 of the world’s 20 largest banks — totaling close to $2 trillion in market value — have made climate commitments.

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Moreover, the plight of people and communities in vulnerable geographies and economies has resonated and triggered a moral imperative. In Paris, governments did not seek the lowest common denominator. Instead, they formed a high-ambition coalition and agreed to a warming target of 1.5 degrees.

Finally, the role of committed leadership cannot be underestimated. UN climate chief Christiana Figueres inspired, convinced, and compelled. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and French foreign minister Laurent Fabius made it their personal mission to reach an agreement.

Paris is already a success. It showed unprecedented global collaboration on an issue where divisions were deep and stakes were high. Paris can also be transformational. There is now abundant evidence that iron mandates are not essential when there is a global desire to make progress. Rather, leadership toward that goal, combining economic incentives and peer pressure — if guided intelligently by the United Nations — can produce the effective implementation that is so crucial.


Maria Ivanova is an associate professor and codirector of the Center for Governance and Sustainability at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at UMass Boston. She serves on the UN Secretary General’s Scientific Advisory Board.