We must ‘Reply All’ to the Collective Action in Paris

December 22, 2015
On Dec. 15 in New York, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon briefed Member States on the historic Paris Agreement adopted on 12 December by the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) hosted by France. (UN Photo/Evan Schneider)

The climate accord just concluded in Paris is a victory for diplomacy. After so many failed attempts, the 196-country agreement has been rightly lauded in media and capitals around the globe. Furthermore, and hopefully in the knick of time, government leaders have acknowledged that humankind is the cause of global warming: a victory for science and the beginning of the end for our dependency on fossil fuels. But does this mean we’ve been saved? Not by a long shot. 

Commendable as leaders' recognition of the danger is, Paris has not resulted in any enforceable emissions reduction targets. Instead, countries have agreed to submit their own reduction targets for 2030, which they are free to fix for themselves and which have no binding legal force. That is because the Paris pledges’ purpose is primarily to emphasize global participation in reduction efforts rather than ambition. The agreement is also frank about this as it explicitly recognizes that countries are not nearly ambitious enough to have a chance of staying below the official target. Of the intentional pledges already submitted, it is known that even if they are achieved fully and in time (and assuming proportionate efforts continue after 2030), the Earth will nonetheless warm 2.7 to 3.5 degrees by century's end. Too much, in other words. Far too much.

In effect, the accord legitimizes countries in perpetuating inadequate climate policies and in thereby contravening the universal goal of safeguarding humanity from dangerous climate change. This is worrying considering that at the 2010 climate conference in Cancun, the same 196 countries jointly affirmed that dangerous climate change poses a threat to the preservation and safeguarding of human rights worldwide. So the stakes are enormous. The fact that the most recent climate summit once again has not led to concrete and enforceable reduction targets signifies much more than just a missed opportunity.

But even if countries are willing to accept this lack of concrete and enforceable emissions reductions from each other, it does not follow that their citizens have to. Going forward, we all have a role to play, like it or not, in meeting targets. National law may well entail a legal obligation on states to bring national climate policy into line with the (well below) two-degree objective established under international law. In fact, this was precisely the judgement issued by the Dutch district court in The Hague earlier this year, involving a case made by the Urgenda Foundation and 900 Dutch citizens. Invoking the two-degree standard of the Cancun Agreements, the court ordered the Dutch government to cut back the country's emissions output by at least 25 percent in 2020 (relative to 1990 levels). According to the judge, climate science has proven that if industrialized nations like the Netherlands do not cut their emissions by 25 percent in 2020, there is a significant chance that warming will surpass two degrees in the second half of this century. In view of the serious danger that this poses to the Dutch public, including the imminent threat of human rights violations on Dutch soil, the judge deemed it unacceptable to permit emissions levels that would continue to contribute to exceeding the two-degree threshold.

In recent months, courts in Pakistan and the United States have handed down rulings that also underscore that states are under an individual obligation to pursue effective climate policy, regardless of what other countries do or fail to do. In essence, these court judgements converge with and enforce what has now been agreed in Paris, which is that the solution to this international problem lies in taking individual responsibility, and in individual responsibility alone. By national governments first and foremost and, under their auspices, by regions, by towns and cities, by companies and by ordinary people. In other words, each country, including Canada has its work cut out for it and must consider in short order how to respond to what finally started in Paris. Let’s make good things happen.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

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