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The Lima climate deal is largely voluntary. That may be its biggest strength.

 Ice Sculpture in Darling Harbour, Australia
Ice Sculpture in Darling Harbour, Australia
Kristen Spry/Carbon Planet/Flickr

To many observers, the global climate deal that was struck in Lima, Peru, this week looks awfully flimsy.

It works like this: Every country in the world will submit a plan to the UN next year describing how they intend to help tackle global warming. Those plans will form the basis of a new global climate agreement negotiated in Paris at the end of 2015.

But the content of these plans is entirely voluntary. Countries can pledge to cut their greenhouse-gas emissions as much or as little as they feel like. They can provide a detailed timetable or not. And the Paris agreement isn't likely to be legally binding in any way. If countries don't follow through, they're unlikely to face any consequences.

But to political scientist David Victor, this might actually be one of the deal's best features. For over 20 years, he points out, world leaders have been trying to forge a binding global treaty that would legally require countries to cut their emissions. This was the logic behind the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Yet this approach has largely failed. Countries like China and India refused to be included. Others, like Canada, simply withdrew when they couldn't meet the targets. All the while, global emissions kept going up and up and up.

Victor has long argued that UN negotiators would never be able to impose a climate plan on reluctant countries from on high. Instead, any climate deal should work from the bottom up — start with what countries are actually willing to do and slowly build from there. And that's essentially taken in these latest climate talks. It's not enough to avoid drastic global warming — not yet, at least. But it may be a step forward from past gridlock.

I talked to Victor, a professor at UC San Diego's School of International Relations and Pacific Studies about these latest talks. A transcript follows:

Brad Plumer: You've written a lot about how climate talks need to take a "bottom-up" approach. Would you say that's what we saw with the Lima climate deal?

David Victor: I think it’s exactly following those lines. I’m actually more encouraged than I have been in many years that they’re going to make meaningful progress.

Brad Plumer: So what would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of this new, basically voluntary approach?

DV: The pluses in the system are the flexibility, particularly for countries that are reluctant to do much to cut emissions and don’t want to spend a lot of money on climate change. That's basically everyone except the European Union. For those countries to be engaged, they need to be able to make pledges that are aligned with things they care about — air pollution, or jobs, or security. So the kinds of pledges we'll see will differ by country. And this new framework gives them flexibility to do that.

The other plus, in theory, is that this approach allows for multi-speed policy efforts. You can have different groups of countries doing different things [on climate change] under the broad umbrella of this Paris agreement. That’s good news, because it's often easier to reach agreement in small groups. Examples include the recent US-China deal on emissions, or the Norway-led partnership on forests.

The minuses are that these talks do run the risk of becoming a forum in which no one actually does anything. It's possible [negotiators] could just staple all these national pledges together and not make any effort to stitch them into something that gets countries to do more than they otherwise would.

But that danger has been looming over these talks for a long time. The difference now is that countries will put a more diverse set of goals and plans on the table. And with some effort, you can see how those plans could start to connect together and create a positive negotiating dynamic. The encouraging precedent here is in trade — where you get a bicycle theory of cooperation. [This is the idea that once the process of trade liberalization gets started, it has to keep moving forward in subsequent talks.] You build credibility and trust over time and then move to bigger issues.

UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres (L) listens to the COP20 President and Peruvian Minister of Environment Manuel Pulgar on December 12, 2014

BP: One thing a lot of observers have noted is that the Paris climate deal in 2015 is very unlikely to be binding on countries. Is that a problem?

DV: The idea that you neeed a binding treaty — it's unbelievable that this myth has been propagated for 20 years. There have been lots of serious studies looking at non-binding and binding instruments, and there’s a real trade-off with each approach.

If you require that climate commitments be legally binding — that means enforceable within international law, which in itself may not mean very much — then there are still huge trade-offs. Countries are only going to sign on if they can make a commitment that they're actually sure they can comply with. So countries end up making lowest-common-denominator pledges. They only do stuff they're positive they can implement.

That was part of the failure of the Kyoto Protocol. Countries knew this was binding, so they only put on the table things they were sure they could comply with. And if countries couldn't comply — like the United States and later Canada — then they either rewrote the commitments or didn't join.

So yes, a treaty can have perfect formal legal compliance. But that's not what we actually care about. We care about whether it will have an impact. And there's reason to think that an agreement that's not formally binding can be more effective in places.

BP: One big concern about Lima is that there's no rigorous outside review of these national climate plans. The US wanted this, countries like China and India opposed it. Isn't that a big flaw here?

DV: This is a big deal. But it's not surprising to me that within a large negotiating group of 196 countries, they won't actually agree on formal procedures for how to review pledges. Especially when a lot of countries don't have much confidence in how this review would work. Will you have UN inspectors traipsing around China, checking to see if they're complying? A lot of countries are wary of agreeing to rules on this in a large forum.

But there are solutions to this problem. You can imagine building up a parallel capacity outside of the UN to analyze these commitments. Or you can imagine doing this in small groups. Countries like China might get skittish about a global peer review. But they might team up with other countries they do trust to do a mutual peer review. This wasn't discussed in the US-China joint agreement, but you could see that happening. China has been willing to submit some of their policies for outside review — they work with the International Energy Agency to look at their energy policies, for instance.

BP: Was there anything you found surprising about the Lima agreement?

DV: I think it's a surprise that there was an agreement at all. You could have easily seen things like squabbling over money derailing this all. But that didn't happen.

One interesting point is that we're starting to see some realism about things like the amount of money in the Green Climate Fund [an international UN fund set up to help poor countries adapt to global warming]. Wealthy countries have now pledged about $10 billion this year — although the US contribution to that still isn't guaranteed. Those are numbers you can imagine working. But there's also talk about $100 billion per year into this fund [by 2020], which still seems unrealistic.

BP: The Lima agreement also stated that any new global climate treaty will have to deal with climate adaptation as well as cutting emissions. So that might mean helping poorer countries build seawalls or storm warning systems or helping farmers to adapt to increased droughts. But what would that actually look like in the context of a global treaty?

DV: Yeah, this is one of the great unknowns. I think we can see a line of sight for mitigation [i.e., reducing greenhouse-gas emissions]. But for adaptation we still have no idea what this will look like.

There are many countries for whom mitigation is sideshow and it’s all about adaptation. But there are a lot of questions here. How does adaptation get funded? How do you spend money? Who would get it? How would you know the projects are working well?

To give an example: The traditional standard for funding these sorts of projects is that the international community figures out how much a given project will cost and then calculates the "extra cost" — how much it contributes to the global public good. And the community pays that extra cost. But most adaptation measures make sense for countries regardless. Bangladesh is building in early warning systems for river flooding. The net present value of those investments is positive. So under traditional funding approaches, outside funders shouldn't be paying for it. But these systems are plausibly needed because of climate change. So it gets complicated. There are lots of scenarios, and we still haven't figured out what it looks like.

Interview has been condensed and very lightly edited for clarity.

Further reading

-- A full breakdown of the Lima climate deal

-- Past UN climate talks have failed. Will this new round be any different?