From targets for renewables to renewable targets: significance of the 5-year governing cycles on the effectiveness of the Paris Agreement

By Madelin Strupitis-Haddrick

Madelin attended the 2016 UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP22) where she represented the University of Sydney Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences. Madelin is studying a Bachelor of International and Global Studies.


The Paris Agreement of 2015 was widely lauded as a turning point in global climate action, having generated momentum and commitment to a universal, binding agreement on climate action with the promise of continually enhanced action. This progressive commitment is founded in 5-year governing cycles, comprising a regular stocktake of progress and timeframe for increased targets. Whilst this has formalised the potential for regular deepening of contributions, its effectiveness will largely depend upon the UNFCCC’s ability to sustain momentum for climate action. This policy brief will analyse the potential for the Agreement’s 5-year cycles to prompt implementation and increasing global ambition through increased public, civil and business involvement.


  1. The UNFCCC should establish an annual panel at the Sustainable Innovation Forum highlighting ambitious, high-performing states in order to incentivise Parties to meet and exceed their NDCs.
  2. Clear and transparent monitoring procedures should be designed to involve data comparability and independent review.
  3. The UNFCCC should establish a working group to coordinate major emitters in making substantial revisions to their INDCs prior to 2018.


The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) established a significant platform to facilitate global action to mitigate and adapt to anthropogenic climate change in the Paris Agreement of 2015. The ambitious accord commits its 197 Parties to ‘holding the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C’ (FCCC/1/CP.21, 2016b, Article 2). This quantifiable target, universality and binding contributions are a clear progression from the issue-specific Montreal Protocol and limited-actor Kyoto Protocol. The Paris Agreement both reflects the advancement of the global climate regime and incorporates this into its progressive design, relying upon 5-year cycles of review and improved nationally determined contributions (NDCs) in order to reach its target.

This paper will address the means necessary to promote implementation and increased ambition alongside the factors potentially limiting such action. A comparative analysis of the design and outcomes of past multilateral climate agreements, consideration of shifting environmental paradigms and the increasing plurality of climate actors will inform analysis of the design of the Paris Agreement. The 5-year cycles provide the potential to facilitate the increasing emission reductions necessary to prevent dangerous climate change, however only through incentivising Parties to increase and achieve their NDCs, promoting compliance through transparent reporting, and sustaining momentum for increasing climate action will the UNFCCC achieve its target.

Development of the Global Climate Regime

The global environmental agenda

The transnational and severe effects of historical and current greenhouse gas emissions render international cooperation necessary to mitigate climate change and adapt to its effects (IPCC, 2014, p. 17; Haas, 2002, p. 74). However, the toolkit of actions available to states and multilateral groups is limited by path dependency: actors’ capacities are limited by existing knowledge, norms and structures (Rosen, 2015, p. 43). Multilateral agreements have expanded the spheres of available action by progressively redefining environmental problems and agendas to align with economic and equity considerations, and extending the role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the business community in traditionally state-centric conferences (Club of Rome, 1972; Brundtland, 1987; UNFCCC, 1992; Haas, 2002, pp. 74-75).

Factors influencing multilateral action

Due to state sovereignty, the success of international climate agreements relies upon Parties’ willingness to substantially reduce emissions in order to provide the global public good of a stable climate (Rosen, 2015, p. 33; Stern, 2007, p. 22). Governments’ actions depend on a ‘two-level game’ in which they seek to increase international standing while at the same time securing domestic political support (Putnam, 1988, p. 434). Thus states’ with greater dependency on environmentally damaging industries, little adoption of the green economy and lesser public awareness of the gravity of climate change may reject, delay or fail to comply with multilateral climate agreements to suit domestic interests whilst inaccurate reporting may be used to preserve international reputation.

Path dependencies: the Montreal and Kyoto Protocols

The Montreal and Kyoto Protocols established path dependencies for future climate action. The Montreal Protocol, which successfully resulted in a 98% decrease in ozone-depleting substances, highlighted the effectiveness of universality, clarity and support mechanisms (UNFCCC, 1987; C2ES, 2016). Its limited focus on chlorofluorocarbons and gradual introduction of universal controls provided political palatability, whilst extension of restrictions to limit harmful substitutes - with further negotiations currently underway- revealed the potential for agreements to progress (C2ES, 2016).

The Kyoto Protocol, whilst unable to achieve this universality due to equity concerns, firmly placed climate change on the global agenda and introduced commitment periods for emission reduction (UNFCCC, 1997; Rosen, 2015, p. 45). The limited efficacy of its binary approach- requiring emissions reductions only from 39 developed countries- highlighted the need for a global accord containing emissions pledges from all countries (UNFCCC, 1997, Annex B; Garnaut, 2011). The US’ rejection of the Protocol, the withdrawal of Canada and the failure of Parties to meet their targets emphasised the need to incorporate incentives and stringent reporting requirement to increase participation and implementation (IPCC, 2014, p. 29; Barnett, 2007, p. 1366; Rosen, 2015, p. 31). The Kyoto Protocol’s weak targets- averaging 5.2% reductions in emissions-, uncertainty about future commitment periods and rushed timeframe due to its delayed entrance into force led to a lack of confidence and Parties’ adoption of short-term measures in order to meet their emissions pledges (Barnett, 2007, p. 1366; Rosen, 2015, p. 41). Such results, combined with the increase in global emissions during the first Kyoto period, emphasised the need for substantial progressive commitments in order to achieve effective environmental action (Rosen, 2015, p. 31; IPCC, 2014, p. 29).

Shift in Public and Private Perceptions

Multilateral climate action has evolved within a shifting external environment, performing better when aligned with national priorities and perceptions of sustainable development, such as are influenced by public perceptions and industry direction (IPCC, 2012, p. 20).

Public awareness

Public support for climate action has been increasing as knowledge about the impacts of irreversible anthropogenic climate change has been spread through education, the media and advocacy networks. In Pew’s Global Attitudes Survey in 2015 despite regional variation, majorities in every nation surveyed perceive climate change and its effects as a serious and immediate problem that will affect them personally (Pew, July 2015). Climate change was rated as the top global threat with 78% of respondents supporting emission reduction commitments within their own nations as part of the Paris Agreement (Pew, November 2015, pp. 12-13, 23).

Private sector outlook

Whilst industries within the private sector initially resisted global environmental regulations, there has been a significant shift with the Stern Review revealing that ‘ignoring climate change will eventually damage economic growth’ (Stern, 2007). Recent surveys of business leaders indicate a majority are concerned about climate change and environmental damage (PwC, 2016, p. 7). Corporate events- such as the Sustainable Innovation Forum held alongside UNFCCC conferences since 2007- have developed to coincide with international environmental conferences, bringing business, financial, civil and governmental delegates together to initiate environmental cooperation. However, only 47% of prominent CEOs view government-business partnerships as effectively reducing risks from climate change (PwC, 2016). This indicates there is substantial potential for further collaboration on sustainable development.

This increased public awareness of climate change and business support laid the foundations which resulted in a progressive and ambitious agreement in Paris in 2015. Sustained momentum is proving significant in generating pressure for early entry into force, with China and the US’s ratification of the Agreement at the G20 summit being followed by that of another 32 countries at the UN General Assembly’s September Ratification Ceremony (BBC, 2016; The Guardian, 2016).

Design of the Paris Agreement


The Paris Agreement defied doubts persisting from the inadequacy of Kyoto, passing a universal binding accord requiring substantial and increasing emission reductions from all Parties. However, the current NDC total is insufficient to achieve the ultimate target, placing global emissions on a path to a 2.7°C rise in global temperature by 2100 (CAT, 2015, p. 4; UNEP, 2015, pp. 2-4). As a result, ‘much of the Agreement’s promise is contingent on its implementation’, particularly of Parties regularly improving their contributions (Rowell & Van Zeben, 2016, p. 50; Bailey & Tomlinson, 2016, pp. 8-9). Parties’ requirement to justify their NDCs as ‘fair and ambitious’ as per the Lima Call for Climate Action could be enhanced by involving non-state actors, with review by analytical bodies and NGOs generating pressure for greater accountability (UNFCCC, 2014b).

The 1.5-2°C goal is a normative strength of the Agreement as it establishes a status quo for climate action and a quantifiable measure of success (Rowell & Van Zeben, 2016, p. 52). Psychologically, this may have a ‘corresponding effect on state compliance under international law’ depending on continued widespread support and perceptions of the Agreement as likely to be enforced (Rowell & Van Zeben, 2016, p. 53). As such, Parties’ implementation of NDCs will be influenced by sustained public pressure on governments, the embracing of the green economy by the private sector and the regular monitoring and publicising of progress through the global stocktake (IPCC, 2014, p. 19).


The Agreement text stresses ‘the urgent need’ to address the gap between current INDCs and emissions trajectories for a 2°C temperature rise by ‘accelerating the implementation of the Convention and its Kyoto Protocol in order to enhance pre-2020 ambition’ (FCCC/1/CP.21, 2016b). However, targets for 2030 delay more extensive mitigation action and will require rapid and severe emissions cuts and technological solutions from 2030-2050 (IPCC, 2014, p. 24; UNEP, 2015, p. 6; Stern, 2007, p. 11). In addition to producing a highly challenging emissions gap, a decade of stagnant ambition could reduce momentum for climate diplomacy (Bailey & Tomlinson, 2016, p. 5). The Emissions Gap Report reveals significant emission reduction opportunities from energy efficiency, particularly infrastructure and energy production (UNEP, 2015, p. 6). Due to businesses’ role in technology and innovation, collaboration between governments and the private sector could be beneficial in this area to ‘stimulate the development of a broad portfolio of low carbon technologies and reduce costs’ (Stern, 2007, p. 19).

Cyclical Review

A key feature of the design of the Paris Agreement is the increases to Parties’ contributions to occur every 5 years, preceded by a global stocktake two years prior. The monitoring, reporting and verification provisions of this stocktake establish regular appraisal of Parties’ progress towards their NDCs as well as reviews of transfers of finance, technology and capacity-building to developing countries (FCCC/1/CP.21, 2016b). Whilst this architecture provides the necessary means to evaluate action thus far and identify any problems with support mechanisms, state sovereignty and the resulting lack of strong enforcement measures render the success of the Agreement subject to Parties’ compliance in meeting targets and accurately reporting on progress. The lack of comparability in INDC reporting as yet indicates that country-driven reporting without stringent standards and independent review could result in inaccurate, incomplete or misleading data. The modalities of the global stocktake must endeavour to limit Parties’ capacity for self-interested or short-term actions as occurred under Kyoto by establishing clear requirements for Parties to supply accurate data on emissions as well as information on long term investments in energy efficiency and transitions to low-carbon technology.

Recommendations for sustaining ambition

1. An annual panel at the Sustainable Innovation Forum of representatives from high-performing Parties.

In order to prompt Parties’ willingness to meet and increase contributions, businesses’ support for climate action should be harnessed. The Sustainable Innovation Forum which runs alongside the annual Conference of Parties provides an ideal opportunity for such an incentive due to its aim of creating linkages between business, civil and governmental sectors and diffusing knowledge and technologies ‘to accelerate international sustainable development and enhance the ‘green economy’’ (Climate Action, 2016). Parties’ willingness to rapidly reduce emissions could be generated by institutionalising presenter positions as a privilege extended exclusively to countries who achieve ambitious NDCs in relation to their respective capabilities. This opportunity to attract investment could incentivise Parties to undertake economy-wide, long-term climate action through revising environmental regulations and product standards, and investing in projects such as renewable energy networks, public transportation and carbon-neutral manufacturing. Concurrently, the business confidence produced by state commitment to climate-neutral infrastructure could encourage private investment in fields such as energy efficient technology, renewable energy and carbon capture and storage, thereby accelerating and reducing the cost of Parties achieving their emission reduction targets (Stern, 2007, p. 12; Rosen, 2015, p. 40).

2. Clear and transparent reporting requirements involving monitoring by independent bodies.

The committees at COP22 determining the scope, inputs and modalities for global stocktake assessments should establish independent, transparent, comparable and comprehensive reviews of Parties’ progress. Recognising the shifting roles of international actors and the media, the UNFCCC should involve think tanks and NGOs in review processes to generate greater accountability in reporting and implementation of the Agreement.  Independent analytical review should be encouraged in assessing Parties’ NDCs against IPCC reports and Parties’ emissions levels, energy sources, energy efficiency, national priorities and projected emission reduction capabilities. Such research will expose targets which are weak or unlikely to be fulfilled whilst also providing Parties with cost- and social-analyses of the additional measures required to meet more ambitious targets. Once in force, this involvement should be extended to evaluating Parties’ progress toward current and future targets and assessing the authenticity of data provided. Incorporating NGOs and think tanks into the review process will enhance accountability while simultaneously promoting the involvement of non-state actors in a comprehensive global shift to a low carbon future.

3. A preparatory committee to coordinate substantial revisions to major emitters’ INDCs.

The ability of the Paris Agreement to mitigate emissions will be significantly influenced by the depth of the targets set, the immediacy of Parties to reduce emissions and the establishment of a cycle of regular, robust review and improvements to Parties’ contributions (UNEP, 2015, p. 4; Bailey & Tomlinson, 2016, p. 5). To create a positive path dependency of immediate and progressive emission reduction, UNFCCC should establish a working group to coordinate contribution increases prior to the facilitative dialogue in 2018. Transparency of intentions within the proceedings of this working group will allow Parties to signal their planned actions, generating collective ambition. Furthermore, developing this mechanism in advance of 2020 will prepare for greater efficacy of target renewals during the Agreement’s 5-year cycles of contributions.


The Paris Climate Conference complemented and further generated increasing governmental, public and business support for climate action, however its non-additive, ratchet design has made the Agreement’s success dependent on continued momentum. This design of five year cycles of contributions has been influenced by path dependencies from the Kyoto Protocol, however the Paris Agreement is greatly improved in its universality, scale and scope. The Agreement’s reliance on increased ambition has woven government policies, collaboration with businesses and civil scrutiny into the multilateral response to climate change. This has created the conditions where collective action can and must become truly collective, with the UNFCCC to involve non-state actors as well as governments in incentivising implementation of Parties’ targets, sustaining public attention and accountability, and facilitating discussions for enhanced commitments.



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