Landon C. Stevens, Director of Policy
Arthur R. Wardle, Policy Analyst


Increasingly, countries are gathering to address concerns surrounding climate change. The 2015 United Nations Conference of Parties, COP21, saw the emergence of a landmark agreement for collective global action. The tagline arising from this agreement was “Long live the planet. Long live humanity. Long live life itself.” Indeed, this agreement should positively benefit the planet, but comes with myriad costs associated with such efforts. Just how these agreements are funded, managed, and regulated are crucial to understanding the broader impacts on individual parties. This paper evaluates the impacts of trade-offs made when considering long-term climate goals over short-term well-being for individual nations and citizens. The paper identifies considerations for officials in countries facing issues associated with energy poverty when crafting global climate agreements (GCAs). The primary question this paper asks is: “What role, if any, should poorer nations play in global climate agreements?” After reviewing the status of global CO2 emissions and the efficacy of GCAs, we argue that involving developing countries in GCAs is not beneficial in accomplishing global CO2 mitigation goals. In fact, when low-income countries are party to GCAs their role is either purely symbolic or works counter to other development goals.


For the last 35 years the discussion of human impact on the planet and its climate has taken center stage at numerous global summits as leaders have decided that global collective action is needed to avoid the projected negative impacts of climate change. Acknowledged by scientists to be a concerning threat as early as 1979, the United Nations began organizing to take action on the issue and has since held summits in locales like Kyoto, Copenhagen, Cancún, Rio de Janeiro, and most recently Paris (Gupta, 2014). Despite the emergence of climate change as a major political priority among citizens in most developed nations, finding enough common ground to reach a consensus agreement among world leaders has proven to be elusive.

The most recent agreement formed by the UN Conference of Parties at the World Climate Change Conference (COP21) in December, 2015 has been hailed as a landmark success by many. As Reuters (2015) reported, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said of the final agreement:

“This is a tremendous victory for all of our citizens, not for any one country, or any one bloc, but for everybody here who has worked so hard to bring this across the finish line. It is a victory for all of the planet and for future generations. We have set a course here. The world has come together around an agreement that will empower us to chart a new path for our planet, a smart and responsible path, a sustainable path.”

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker agreed adding, “This robust agreement will steer the world towards a global clean energy transition.” Unfortunately, even some of its strongest supporters have lamented its perceived shortcomings, with U.S. President Barack Obama noting, “…no agreement is perfect, including this one. Even if all the targets set in Paris are met, we’ll only be part of the way there…” (Reuters, 2015). This lack of a ‘perfect’ outcome has been decried in many circles, with the use of inefficient economic tools like subsidies, non-binding voluntary agreements, and political appeasement of various interest groups cited as key weaknesses (Michaelowa, 1998). According to Brennan (2009), various experts viewing the issue through different lenses misjudge the complex nature of reaching effective agreements. For some the issue is purely scientific, others view it as a moral problem, and additional actors see it as an economic exercise. This is all before the overarching difficulty of reaching political consensus by nearly 200 world leaders is factored in.

Nowhere has this political difficulty been more apparent than when discussing unique positions held by industrialized nations, developing nations in the midst of drastic economic growth, and non-developed nations. Identifying and understanding the issues of these various players and the associated expectations attached to any eventual agreement is essential for acknowledging the very different set of circumstances each nation finds itself in when deciding on climate action. Today the question is not whether something needs to be done–the scientific community has converged around agreement on that point–instead, the discussion has evolved to include a new set of criteria. These new questions ask things such as: just how much should be done? Who should be responsible to do it? Who will pay for it? How will anything be paid for? And how will such actions be implemented, monitored, and enforced?

Although general scientific consensus has been reached recognizing that the Earth’s climate is changing and that there will necessarily be physical implications without taking some form of action, the projections on the more complex social and human impacts of this issue are highly contested and used frequently as a political wedge in broader discussions (Salehyan & Hendrix, 2010). While global mitigation efforts are planned and implemented through these global climate agreements (GCAs), what seems to be neglected in the grander discussion is “what is the greatest good deliverable by collective action for non-developed nations?” In the case of the Paris accord, a proposed pool of aid set aside by industrialized nations totaling $100 billion dollars per year has been earmarked to provide “meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation” for developing nations (United Nations, 2015). This annual sum will no doubt produce some form of beneficial return for both individual nations and the global community in both the short and long-term, but this Paris agreement (and inevitable subsequent GCAs) should be closely scrutinized and evaluated beyond its traditional narrow scope of climate action lowering CO2 emissions.

Read the full working paper here.