International climate change negotiations began in 1976, but the Rio talks in 1992 — the Earth Summit — established the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Current agreements focus on the actions of advanced economies, but not on developing countries – some of which have now become major emitters of greenhouse gases. As such, during the 2011 Climate Change Conference held in Durban, South Africa, it was agreed that a “treaty or agreed outcome with legal force” should be reached amongst 196 signatories (195 countries + the European Union).
The upcoming 21st Session of the Convention – known as COP21 or Paris 2015 – will be held from November 30th to December 11th 2015. The goal is to establish, for the first time, a universal agreement to combat anthropogenic climate change.
If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, we will pass the threshold beyond which global warming becomes catastrophic and irreversible. That threshold is estimated as a temperature rise of 2ºC (3.6ºF) above pre-industrial levels, and on current trajectories we are heading for a rise of about 5C. That may not sound like much, but the temperature difference between today’s world and the last ice age was about 5ºC, so seemingly small changes in temperature can mean big differences for the Earth. – Fiona Harvey, Environmental Journalist writing for the Guardian
In the lead up to the Summit, governments around the world will submit their mitigation goals (emissions reduction) and climate change adaptation goals. Known as “intended nationally determined contributions” or INDCs, these goals are drafted at national level. For example, the United States is aiming to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 26–28% below 2005 levels by 2025. By contrast, the European Union hopes to reach a target of 40% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions when compared to 1990.
As delegations gear up to attend Paris 2015, it is important to remember that Durban set out no concrete specifics as to the legal form or enforceability of such an agreement. The European Union (amongst others) insists that the outcome of Paris 2015 is a set of legally binding targets, whereby countries will be held legally accountable to their INDCs. On the other hand, the US special envoy on climate change, Todd Stern, insists that a ‘hybrid approach’ to legal enforcement offers the best chance of striking a deal agreeable to all.
Non-profit organisations such as Green Alliance, Greenpeace, the RSPB, and the WWF have also weighed in on the importance of reaching a binding agreement. A legally enforceable treaty that works across borders would allow governments and corporate entities to rely on the promises made by others, which encourages both compliance and co-operation.
However, fixating on the creation of a legally binding deal may inadvertently dissuade countries from submitting ambitious INDC targets. This is because, practically speaking, international treaties – like any contract – are entered into when the individual parties fundamentally believe they will be able to deliver on their obligations. In order to verify such compliance – ie “promise keeping” – formal scrutiny of progress made on emissions reduction will be required. This would require nearly 200 different countries – each with their own constitutions, electoral processes, and economic realities – to agree on the requisite transparency, accountability and punitive (sanctioning) mechanisms.
Would removing the goal of reaching a strict, legally binding treaty allow negotiators the flexibility they need to encourage practicable, tangible action? Might a bottom-up or grassroots approach – fuelled and directed by industry and NGO players alike – make the most meaningful progress?