So, is the Paris agreement legally binding?

france-environment-climate-cop21While presenting the draft agreement Laurent Fabius, French Foreign Minister and President of COP21 described it as, “ambitious and balanced, fair, sustainable, dynamic and legally binding”. French President Holland described it as ‘binding’ so also United Nations press release issued immediately after the French Presidential gravel went down.

To me it is binding till American Congress and Senate gives green signal for its ratification after which it shall become legally binding. For the international legal experts on international law, the agreement is not binding in so far as it does not provide for coercive or punitive mechanism for countries that fail to comply with their commitments. If the States that would ratify the Paris agreement want to just walk out of commitment, there is no provision to deter them.

The intend, however, as can be read from the Paris pact is that legally binding policies on compliance would emerge in future. Countries are required to reconvene every five years, starting in 2020, with updated plans that would tighten their emissions cuts and starting in 2023 to publicly report on how they are doing in cutting emissions compared to their plans using a universal accounting system to be developed by experts.

 The plans indicated in INDCs of individual countries are voluntary, however as per the legal requirements they would be publicly monitored. There could “name-and-shame” system of global peer pressure, in hopes that countries will not want to be seen as international laggards. Such system is followed under the Montreal Protocol, now considered as the most successful global environmental agreement so far, and aimed at protecting the stratospheric ozone layer.

 After all , has the environmental diplomacy made history in adopting Paris agreement?

Certainly, yes. Two decades of top-down global accords are turned up side down to transform the accord into bottom-up commitments, called INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions). The era of attempting to capture everyone’s wish into the global environmental accord as ‘mass-pledge’ of emission reduction has gone extinct. The new paradigm is every country brings to the table ambitious commitments to its ability and United Nations keeps those individual and cumulative commitments in a framework to steer the world for finally needed emission reduction.

For the first time after Agenda 21, COP 21 resulted into universal agreement in all its real sense. Paris agreement is not universal because every country has taken commitment but that there is universal realization of transformed circumstances since UNFCCC was adopted in Rio in 1992 as part of Agenda 21. There is universal concern not only on impacts of climate change per se but the impacts on poor and developing countries who are inadequately prepared and need support for their adaptation to climate change and for their efforts to decarbonize their economies, without compromising their development imperatives.

 

There is universal feeling that every one is in the same boat when it comes to trading the flooded waters due to climate change.

Is the success in Paris a profane optimism that ignores the climate reality?

The new deal will not, per se, address the global warming challenges. As per report of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), even if all INDCs are respected, it would mean reducing the global greenhouse gas emissions by about half enough as is necessary to stave off an increase in atmospheric temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial level. 2 degree C is the limit beyond which, as per International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world will be locked into the catastrophic consequences, including rising sea levels, severe droughts and flooding, widespread food and water shortages and more frequent extreme weathers.

Paris deal, however, represents agreed extraordinary opportunity to transform global economy through decarbonized policies to halt the incessant carbon emissions and global warming and begin to eventually decline the intensity of devastating consequences.

The deal in Paris has given clear signal to global financial and energy markets, triggering a fundamental shift away from investment in coal, oil and gas as primary energy sources toward zero-carbon energy sources like wind, solar and nuclear power. The seeds of Third Industrial revolution as pictured by Jeremy Rifkin are sown in Paris Agreement.

The disillusion and disenchantment comes from lack of urgency and ambition that is evident all though in the 29 Articles of 12 pages of Paris agreement and 20 pages of the decision of COP21. IPCC and several of UN reports are unambiguous in stating that decisions and choices we make in our energy and fossil fuel investments today and in next few years would lock our future into devastating consequences. The entry into force of the Paris agreement is envisaged in 2020, 5 years from now. Making it legally binding in its true sense would probably take another 5 years. Global speed in halting climate change is out of pace with the reality. Worst, there is no provision in Paris agreement to accelerate the process.

Evidence based hopes

 France and India, particularly, have planted hopes for speedy actions that could trigger the acceleration to decarbonize the economies world over.

 

Three months before COP21 France enacted the Law on Energy Transition for Green Growth, which French Minister of Ecology and Sustainable Development Segolene Royal, steered through long debate in the French Parliament. Now France is set to be the first country to have translated into law its commitments in Paris Agreement. The law sets the objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40 per cent by 2030, and of increasing the proportion of non-nuclear renewable energies to 32 per cent in 2030. It targets reducing reliance on nuclear energy from 75 per cent to 50 per cent. It stipulates an ambitious rise in the carbon tax from €14.50 per tonne at present to €56 in 2020.

India, through its aggressive policies and targets on renewable energy -175 Gigawatts by 2022, to be revised upward later-and energy efficiency, foresees the development of its poor population and by democratizing the energy access. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has inspired the country by recalling its thousands of years of technology-heritage that could be deployed for mitigating and adapting to climate change. It released the catalogue of these practical and proven technologies and practices of present and past Indian climate-proof saga.

India’s judiciary (The Supreme Court) became first ever legal entity just 3 days after Paris agreement to set legally binding actions on climate change. It on 15th Dec 2015 doubled the environment compensation charge for loaded commercial vehicles entering New Delhi and imposed a blanket ban on registration of diesel vehicles of 2,000 cc and above in the National Capital Region.

These walking tours, in India and France, of talking diplomacy provide the evidence-based hopes for climate proof society. END

BY Rajendra Shende, IIT-Alumni, Chairman of TERRE Policy Centre, former Director UNEP

 

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