Voluntary action will not solve the climate crisis. Unless a system where penalties for climate laggards and incentives for climate leaders is put in place, collective climate action will not prevent dangerous human interference in the climate system.

A new climate regime based on voluntary actions is the most likely outcome of a Paris deal, to be agreed by 197 Parties to the United National Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in December 2015. In such a system, each country determines domestically what is appropriate in terms of its emissions trajectory and informs the convention about its actions. The UNFCCC then aggregates the national commitments and assesses it against a benchmark of 2°C warming. This system, called pledge-and-review, represents the lowest possible level of decision making.

As part of the Paris COP 21 negotiation process, countries submitted their intended nationally-determined pledges (INDCs) for the period between 2020 and 2030, leading to 56.7 GtCO2e annual emissions in the globe in 2030 and to 3.5°C warming. According to the IPCC, that could make the transition to low carbon emissions more difficult and narrow the range of options consistent with maintaining temperature change below 2°C relative to the pre-industrial levels.

Despite this shortfall, enthusiasts of the so-called pledge-and-review approach argue that the Paris deal can deal with the insufficiency of current pledges through a ratcheting mechanism. The narrative is that such a mechanism would enable an upward spiral of ambition over time, keeping alive the hopes for more ambitious mitigation of emissions in the coming years.

Through ratcheting, countries would review their pledges, taking into account three possible benchmarks: individual (how much they would be able to do), internationally (how do they compare to other countries) and globally (how much are they contributing to global emissions and to global mitigation). This process carries a “naming and shaming” component: countries have to present their pledges’ number and methodologies in webcast Questions & Answers sessions. But there are no formal consequences of lagging behind others, nor of ignoring historical or future responsibility for global warming.

Countries may perform several ratcheting rounds in order to make the global trajectory of emissions turn downwards as fast as possible. However, cumulative emissions will remain in the atmosphere for centuries. As there is no technology available to produce instantaneous emissions reductions, slowing down emissions will not prevent the rise in atmospheric GHG concentration. Unless the UNFCCC combines ratcheting with other mechanisms to speed up global decarbonization, the opportunity for compliance with 2°C will soon become impossible.

One important point is that in no other area has voluntary action succeeded as a solution to the problem of undersupply of a public good. On the other hand, some collective actions at the international level have designed effective regimes of cooperation. In the Montreal Protocol, ozone depletion control was possible through the combination of financial and technological incentives with trade sanctions for non-participants. In international security (NATO) and commerce arenas (multilateral trade agreements), systems analogous to a “club” limit free-riding behavior through incentives to member and penalties to non-members.

In the climate arena, the public pressure is high but no incentives nor penalties have been designed so far. The Kyoto Protocol experimented with instruments like the compliance board and some market-mechanisms, like the joint quotas and the emissions trading schemes. Still, it has not been able to penalize non-members: the US never ratified the agreement, Canada left the Protocol in 2012 and Japan escaped from its 2nd commitment period further on. As a result, a pledge-and-review approach is currently seen as the only politically feasible strategy in the UN space, as two decades of negotiations have failed to solve the prevailing free-riding problem in the climate policy.

One possible solution is the formation of clubs outside the UN, like defended by William Nordhaus from Yale University, in which members would pursue a common carbon price and non participants would be penalized through trade tariffs. This is certainly not a possible outcome of Paris — but could complement its incremental and voluntary change approach.

In the famous Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot”, two characters wait endlessly and in vain for the arrival of someone named Godot. Like in Beckett’s play, the world has been waiting for a climate change solution to arise from the UNFCCC since its inception in 1992. But it is as clear that the UNFCCC lacks the problem-solving capacity to come up with an all-at-one-time solution to climate change, just as it gets clear in the play that Godot will never show up. The world can only end this waiting game if climate policy catches up with the real world through economic instruments, like pricing and trade.