How the “Ratchet Mechanism” Might Help Fight Climate Change

Just over five years ago, world leaders from 197 countries gathered in Paris to sign the world’s largest, and most comprehensive, climate agreement in history. 

Known today as the Paris Agreement, the agreement outlined pathways to help countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to zero and keep the global average temperature increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050.

Countries were to set their targets, referred to as ‘Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs, to align their economic and social development policies with the goals of the agreement. But with the rather short timeframe, the drafters of the agreement decided to add a “ratchet mechanism” to keep countries accountable to their goals. 

The “ratchet mechanism” works to ensure that countries increase their climate contributions every five years to respond to ongoing changes in the climate.

In this article, we explain how the ‘ratcheting mechanism’ might help us fight climate change.

The ‘ratchet mechanism,’ explained

The “ratchet mechanism” was set into motion when the Paris Agreement was ratified in November 2016. It seeks to hold 195 countries accountable for their climate goals over the next thirty years. 

This climate change mechanism works by calling on member nations to ratchet up their climate contributions every five years, thus the nickname ‘ratchet mechanism’. The UN Climate Change Secretariat reviews each country’s commitments and assesses how far its actions have contributed to the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit.

It then helps the member country set plans to make deeper cuts to their greenhouse gas emissions and seek any support it needs to make sure it can achieve its more ambitious goals. 

Following this, member nations spend the next four to five years implementing their new goals and keeping track of their technological, social, and economic progress. 

This process creates a cycle of ambition that helps nations become bolder with their climate goals over time. Governments can build on their previous mistakes and draw on lessons from other countries. Climate goals don’t stay stagnant but respond to real-time changes in the environment.

The ratchet mechanism and the Paris Climate Agreement

The ratchet mechanism was added to the Paris Climate Agreement because of past failures to hold nations accountable for their climate contributions.

Previous climate agreements set in Kyoto and Copenhagen took a top-down approach that imposed ambitious climate targets on member nations. Though the targets were intended to produce strong outcomes, many nations were unwilling to follow through with them because they perceived them as too difficult.

As a result of that experience, the UN Climate Change Secretariat decided to include the “ratchet mechanism” in the Paris Agreement to make the goal-setting process more inclusive and fair. 

The bottom-up approach has so far proved successful – the agreement has been ratified by 189 signatories who commit to the carbon emission reduction targets set. The mechanism has turned the Paris Agreement into a dynamic and enduring accord that can respond to growing public support for climate action, shifts in technology, and the science of climate change.

And now, more than five years into the agreement, we are entering the agreement’s implementation phase. 

Countries need to fulfill the commitments they’ve made by producing concrete action and policies that drive down their carbon emissions. Success hinges on the ability of countries to build partnerships with private companies and civil society groups and make sure that everybody is working towards the same reduction targets.

Other terms of the Paris Agreement

In addition to the “ratchet mechanism”, which focuses mostly on the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, the Paris Agreement contains other terms that help nations adapt to the ongoing climate changes.

These terms were put in place to strengthen member nations’ abilities to weather the effects of climate change over the coming decades as they work to cut their reliance on fossil fuels. 


The Paris Agreement aims to help member nations strengthen their resilience and reduce their vulnerability to climate change through international cooperation. Governments are encouraged to formulate and implement National Adaptation Plans that clearly outline the support they need to respond to the effects of climate change.

For example, Grenada, an island in the Caribbean, has drafted a freshwater availability plan as it faces increasing risk from sea-level rise and erratic rainfall, both of which reduce the country’s freshwater supply. It has so far received more than 42 million euros from the Green Climate Fund to carry out its plan.

Finance, technology, and capacity-building support

The Paris Agreement also obligates developed countries to help developing countries build clean, climate-resilient futures

Developed countries are to help their more vulnerable partners develop technologies that are climate-friendly. They are also responsible for helping these governments build agencies that will implement the countries’ NDCs.  

In Ecuador, for example, the Capacity-Building Network has allowed Germany to provide sustainable urban development models to help Ecuadorian cities cope with pollution and resource scarcity.

What are on the Paris Agreement’s ratcheting timeline

The ratcheting mechanism timeline of the Paris Agreement began in 2016 after the agreement was ratified by its members. The ratification put in motion member nations’ NDC submissions, with shortfalls in the contributions corrected and improved on by the UN Climate Change Secretariat.

After a two-year policy development period, a roundtable “facilitative dialogue” was held in 2018 to help countries develop clearer, more ambitious, and actionable NDCs for the 2020 meeting. Organized in Poland, the COP24 conference explored climate financing for poor countries and the role of forests in limiting climate change.

2020 was meant to be the year for member nations to present their updated NDCs but the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the plans. 

The COP26 conference has now been moved to November 2021 in Glasgow, where governments are expected to make new decisions on how to cut carbon emissions and initiate a carbon exchange market. Countries’ NDCs will also be reviewed before they are approved for implementation.

Then in 2023, the UN Climate Change Secretariat will initiate a global stocktake on NDCs to assess each country’s progress. The Secretariat will conduct transparent reviews of countries’ resilience to climate change, financial support packages, and emissions reduction policies.

After 2023, the Paris Agreement will follow a five-year cycle where member nations present their updated NDCs in 2025, 2030, and onwards. 

Is ratcheting starting to work?

There are signs that the “ratchet mechanism” is starting to work, despite some misgivings from climate experts.

Several countries have already made promising pledges to tackle climate change ahead of the COP26 summit in Glasgow.

The European Union has committed to reducing carbon emissions by at least 55% before 2030. In a similar vein, the United Kingdom has promised to cut carbon emissions by at least 68% compared to levels in 1990 by the end of the decade. It has also promised to stop financing oil and gas projects and increase its reliance on clean energy sources.

Japan and Korea have both pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, while Pakistan has promised to stop generating electricity from coal-powered electricity stations. Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, went further by saying that his country would become reliant on renewable energies for 60% of its energy needs by 2050. 

But the most impressive NDC came from China, considered by many to be the world’s worst polluter, who pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. China’s decision has since changed the climate debate and convinced other countries to adopt ambitious climate mitigation measures. 

What we need to do to catch up

To make sure that climate pledges like the ones above become successful, we have to implement radical changes to our energy efficiency and environmental conservation efforts. 

If we fail to do so, we risk reaching 3 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century. The climate may become so out of balance that frequent climate disasters could become a normal occurrence.

The good news is that scientists have already figured out what exactly we need to do to catch up with our climate goals. Here are some policies that can help us win the fight against climate change.

Create carbon sinks 

Carbon sinks are natural or artificial reservoirs that store carbon for an indefinite period of time. By creating carbon sinks like forests, which absorb more carbon than they release, we can gradually reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Make clean energy widespread

The burning of fossil fuels for energy contributes to more than 40 percent of our global carbon emissions. If we shut down coal-fired power stations and switched the majority of our homes and businesses to solar or wind power, we could significantly slow down the rise of average global temperatures.

Ensure climate financing

Adequate climate financing is crucial to helping developing countries meet their NDCs. Grants and technical assistance from rich countries can help developing countries build strong institutions and technologies that allow them to adapt to the impacts of climate change

Other ways we can help

As individuals, we can play our part to help our countries and communities reach net-zero emissions.

We can reduce our carbon footprint by cycling to work or eating less meat. We can also bank with a climate-friendly financial platform like Aspiration that helps us buy personal carbon offsets and invest in sustainable businesses.

Aspiration offers a unique bank account that helps you do good for the planet while you grow your wealth. Our Spend & Save Account offers up to 1.00% APY on savings deposits with no bank fees to worry about. Customers can also use the same account to make charitable donations to forest conservation and water hygiene projects.

Try Aspiration today to make a difference for the planet.

*Photo by Melissa Bradley on Unsplash

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