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Achieving the ambitious targets of the Paris Agreement: the role of key actors

Purpose and scope

The Paris Agreement (PA) of 2015 was widely celebrated as the first encompassing global mechanism for international climate cooperation (Bang et al. 2016). The agreement’s key value lies in its universality, with broad participationFootnote 1 and the same obligation to pledge, report and review for all parties (Victor 2015). The ambition mechanism enshrined in the agreement relies on a requirement for all parties to voluntarily propose increasingly ambitious nationally determined contributions (NDCs) every five years, as part of a ‘pledge and review’ governance system (Pickering et al. 2019). 2020–21 will likely provide evidence of enhanced ambition as parties are set to report new NDCs in the run-up to the 26th Conference of the Parties in Glasgow.

Looking back and looking forward, this special feature addresses the prospects of increased ambitions in the domestic climate policies of three important actors: China, the EU and USA. Combined, the three actors are responsible for almost 50% of global emissions (Ge and Friederich 2020), and with strong economic and technological muscles they inhabit influential roles in international climate cooperation. The targets, policy mixes and trajectories of China, the EU and USA will therefore be crucial for the Paris Agreement’s (PA) goal attainment.

Looking back, we offer in-depth case studies and comparison of past and current climate policies of the three major emitters (see Bang, Heggelund and Skjærseth; Skjærseth et al. this issue). To enable the comparison, we develop a conceptual framework for examining two important conditions for achieving the PA’s ambitious goals to hold the global average temperature increase to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C. First, drawing on the policy mix literature (Jordan and Huitema 2014; Hawlett and del Rio 2015; Kivimaa and Kern 2016; Rogge and Reichardt 2016; Kern et al. 2019) we trace the emergence of broad mixes of reinforcing policies in the three actors, acknowledging that such policy mixes are needed to accelerate a societal transition towards net zero emissions. In the case studies, we focus on ‘push’ and ‘pull’ policies for redirecting and accelerating technological change, green industrial policies, policies for just transition, policy feedback from implementation experiences and economic recovery packages. Second, we acknowledge that increased ambition will also depend on the PA’s effects on actors’ targets, policy mixes and emissions trajectories. Our case studies provide a basis for comparing the actual impact of the PA so far on the three largest emitters.

Looking forward, this special feature includes analysis of how the economic crisis following the COVID-19 pandemic may affect future climate policy development in the three actors in terms of disrupting stability, providing windows of opportunity for rapid policy innovation—or causing lower ambitions. While the COVID-19 crisis has—at least temporarily—reduced world GHG emissions by 8% in 2020, low-carbon economic recovery packages are needed to sustain this declining trend. Projections show that even if the transport sector will gradually be wholly electrified and the use of coal will be fully phased out of electricity production and be replaced by renewable energy sources this is not enough to attain the 2 °C target (Bloomberg 2020; DNVGL 2020). Our analysis of the biggest emitters aims to build more knowledge about policy ambitions and mixes that may enable an accelerated low-carbon societal transition. In the following sections, we elaborate on the conceptual framework employed in the special feature articles, starting with an introduction to ‘green growth’ that is the preferred strategy by governments aiming towards net zero emissions.

Green growth

The green growth approach has been embraced by policymakers around the world as a preferred policy response to the climate change challenge. Leading international institutions like the OECD, UNEP and the World Bank see green growth as a route to reduce the environmental impacts and ecological deprivation associated with economic growth, while protecting natural resources and biodiversity (OECD 2011; UNEP 2011; World Bank 2012). According to ‘green growth’ theory, continued economic growth is compatible with sound environmental stewardship, because technological change and substitution can lead to decoupling of GDP from resource use and carbon emissions (Hickel and Kallis 2019). This is also underlined by the Impact Population Affluence Technology (IPAT) and Kaya formulas as applied in IPCC assessments (IPCC 2014). The goal of green growth has now become included in national and international climate policy, also in the Sustainable Development Goals (UN 2020). The European Green Deal explicitly aims to decouple all resource use from economic growth by 2050 (Skjærseth, this issue).

The literature mentions specific mechanisms for achieving green growth, indicating that technological change will improve the ecological efficiency of the economy, and that governments can accelerate this process with the right policy regulations and incentives (Hickel and Kallis 2019). While recognizing the enormity of the challenge posed by climate change, proponents of green growth emphasize the potential that lies in untapped opportunities for resource efficiency and renewable energy through technological improvements and behavioural change (Antal and Van den Bergh 2016; Victor et al. 2019). Basically, mixes or packages of reinforcing policies will be needed to break the emissions trend (OECD 2011; World Bank 2012; Global Commission on the Economy and Climate 2014; Geels et al. 2017).

Policy mixes for low-carbon technological change

From a green growth perspective, then, low- or no carbon technologies are the key to decoupling economic growth from emissions, with three ways of breaking the emissions trend and meeting the Paris targetsFootnote 2: shifting the energy mix towards sources emitting less or no CO2; promoting energy saving so that less energy is consumed while more goods and services are produced and driving carbon capture and storage (CCS) or equivalent ‘removal and storage’ options. All these necessitate technological change—from new ideas, to cost reduction of existing low-carbon technologies to make them competitive with higher-emitting alternatives and affordable and applicable to context. The state, industry and the research community drive such changes—from innovation via market uptake to change in energy- and socioeconomic systems (Åhman et al. 2018; Eikeland and Skjærseth 2019).

In the following, we outline policy mixes for various transition functions. Policy mixes will emerge from both internal and external drives such as political systems, state–society relations and possibly the PA itself (see e.g. Skjærseth, Bang and Schreurs 2013). They form part of the conceptual framework for examining past, present and future climate policies in China, the EU and the USA (Bang, Heggelund and Skjærseth, this issue).

Research indicates that a combination of ‘supply-push’ and ‘demand-pull’ policies is needed to speed up innovation and technology change. Supply-push policies refer to instruments that provide financial and other support to research and innovation, pilot and demonstration projects, thereby providing a technology ‘push’ that may accelerate low carbon technologies. One example of international cooperation in this field is the 25-member Mission Innovation related to the PA.Footnote 3 This ‘mission’, which includes China, the EU and the USA, aims to accelerate clean energy innovation by increasing public and private investments in certain focused low-carbon areas, including mobility, renewables, nuclear, carbon capture and storage (CCS), hydrogen/fuel cells, energy storage and grids.

Studies of ‘success factors’ in the design of technology demonstration policy conclude that the long-term contribution to technological change is inherently uncertain, depending on factors like learning and technological maturity (Nemet et al. 2016; Hart 2017; Åhman et al. 2018). This high uncertainty makes public support to research and innovation crucial for reducing the risk for private investment across the entire value chain. Public support to research and innovation can also create opportunities for technology manufacturers in the international market, promoting or consolidating first-mover advantages. China, the EU and the USA have been among the major players in low-carbon technology innovation, due to their market size, investments, and research capacities.

Innovation studies show that demand-pull instruments play a crucial role, together with technology push instruments (Rogge and Hoffmann 2010; IPCC 2014). Demand-pull policies include the carrot, the stick, and the sermon: binding targets, carbon pricing, subsidies, state-aid rules, technology standards and so on. In the EU for example, various demand-side targets and policies are aimed at increasing energy efficiency, promoting renewables, and reducing GHG emissions towards 2030 and beyond. Adequate ‘pull’ policies may also significantly reduce the risk for private investments in, e.g. large-scale demonstration projects. One example is CCS: it needs ‘push’ support from basic research, small pilot- and larger demonstration projects to prove its technological potential and bring costs down. However, parallel ‘pull’ from a sufficiently high carbon price based on taxes or emissions trading will lower the risk of investments for making CCS commercially viable. In general, energy technologies need strong support—from ideas to the mass market—via large-scale demonstration projects, due to the scale of investment, technological and regulatory inertia and fossil fuel lock-in—often leading to the ‘valley of death’ for low-carbon energy technologies (Åhman et al. 2018). Thus, both push and pull policy instruments are necessary; they need to be aligned to drive technology change through various stages of the innovation process. A strong supply-side technology push is deemed particularly important in the earlier, R&D, and demonstration phases of innovations, whereas a strong market pull is considered more important in the later, deployment phase to ensure (full) market introduction.

Policy mixes or policy packages are needed to ‘push’ and ‘pull’ technological change. It is increasingly recognized that significant change towards a low-carbon economy cannot be achieved with single instruments, but requires a broader mix of reinforcing policies. Recent studies have examined how new combinations of policy instruments shape transition by redirecting and accelerating technological change (Jordan and Huitema 2014; Hawlett and del Rio 2015; Kivimaa and Kern 2016; Rogge and Reichardt 2016). Combinations of policies are needed not only to support innovation in low-carbon energy sources and systems, but also for more comprehensive sustainability transitions (Kern et al. 2019). Achieving this will require broader policies for green industrial growth, including instruments aimed at promoting new ‘green’ business opportunities and constraining the support for existing polluting industries. This has been conceptualized as policy mixes targeting both ´niche support´ and ´creative destruction´ (Kivimaa and Kern 2016).

When energy and climate policies become more ambitious, societal opposition is likely to emerge, as with the ‘yellow vest’ protests in France. An emerging scholarship has started to examine the importance of energy justice and equity concerns in the context of distributional challenges in sustainability transitions (Szulecki 2018). Political decisions may affect fairness across the entire energy cycle—from extraction to final use (Healy and Barry 2017). Combinations of (other) policies are also needed for ensuring a socially fair transition. Economic and other support to, e.g. coal regions or poor energy consumers will be necessary to ensure that no one is ‘left behind’. At least in democratic systems, the energy- and sustainability transition needed to break the emissions trend and meet the PA targets will fail unless there is sustained public support.

In a long-term perspective, successive policy mixes will be necessary, each bringing the major emitters closer to the 2050 target in line with the regular ‘stock-taking’ and increase in ambitions every five years under the Paris Agreement. The policy feedback literature provides a starting point for conceptualizing how policies are linked through various policy phases: adoption, implementation, and reform of policies. Since the 1980s, the study of policy feedback has focused on how existing policies affect politics and policy development (Béland 2010). Jordan and Matt (2014) define ‘policy feedback’ as effects flowing from adopted policies on actors’ original preferences and the reformed policy in question. This insight has since been expanded to include feedback from policy mixes which may have wider effects—policy mixes affect not only their own development but also other instruments in the same issue-area (Edmondson et al. 2019).

Policy feedback may stem from both positive and negative domestic implementation experiences and learning (Skjærseth 2018). Implementation of policies for achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement can entail various benefits—like energy security, ‘green’ jobs, energy technological innovation and alleviation of related problems such as air pollution. For example, reduction of air pollution has been the single most important factor for reducing coal in electricity production in China’s (Heggelund, this issue). However, the political, administrative, and economic costs and resources invested in implementation also shape implementation experiences. These may trigger negative policy feedback that undermines reformed policies and reduces the likelihood of meeting the PA target. One example here is energy-intensive industries like steel and aluminium that are based on production processes requiring non-substitutable fossil fuels that are exposed to international competition.

Most countries have adopted and implemented at least some climate policies incrementally. However, such incremental policy development will be insufficient for the radical changes needed to attain the Paris Agreement’s ambitious targets. External shocks, like the corona/recession crisis, may affect policy development. Theories on the role of exogenous shocks build largely on the insight that established institutions and policies are inherently hard to change (Powell and DiMaggio 1991; Skocpol and Pierson 2002). Structural forces such as path dependency and its self-reinforcing mechanisms are expected to lead to stability (Pierson 2004). However, exogenous shocks, such as large economic recessions, may be powerful disrupters of such relative stability, providing moments of openness for rapid policy innovation—which may lead to major changes in status quo policies (Kingdon 2003; Capoccia 2015). In the end, the direction of change—whether COVID-19 pandemic and economic responses reinforce status quo, accelerate policies, or cause lower ambitions—is ultimately an empirical question (Table 1).

Table 1 Policy mixes and transition functions

In summary, we have identified policy mixes and transition functions for directing low-carbon technological innovation towards breaking the current emissions trend. From a green growth perspective, ‘effective’ policies must be aligned to both ‘push’ and ‘pull’ low-carbon technologies in various stages. Policy mixes will also have to be combined in broader mixes or packages to stimulate new economic niches and restrict pollutive activities. Moreover, policy mixes must ensure a ‘just transition’, to prevent opposition and promote sustained public support—at least in democratically governed countries. Furthermore, domestic implementation of policy mixes must result in positive policy feedback as a foundation for stepping up and reforming climate policies, in line with the Paris Agreement. Finally, responses to crises and economic recessions, as with the COVID-19 pandemic, should accelerate climate policies for green growth in the economy, to break the current emissions trend.

We first offer detailed empirical studies of past, present, and future policy mixes in China, the EU and the US (Bang, Heggelund and Skjærseth). In the concluding article (Skjærseth et. al.), we compare the policy mixes in the three major emitters and examine the effect of the bottom–up design of the Paris Agreement—two important conditions for achieving the Paris Agreement’s ambitious goals.


  1. 1.

    With US re-entry in 2021, the only non-participants are Syria and Nicaragua.

  2. 2.

    Energy-related emissions, excluding removals from land-use and forestry.

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Andresen, S., Bang, G., Skjærseth, J.B. et al. Achieving the ambitious targets of the Paris Agreement: the role of key actors. Int Environ Agreements 21, 1–7 (2021).

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