The debate about global warming is heating up , in some ways quite literally – the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) says that 2016 is on track to be the “hottest year on record.” Fortunately, glance at the news and you can easily believe that state institutions have the issue well in hand. The wording of the well-publicised Paris Agreement was finalised before the end of 2015, undeniably a success when one considers it marks the first time nearly two hundred nations have been able to agree on anything. Under the agreement, states aim to strengthen “the global response to the threat of climate change…keep a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”
Criticisms of the agreement are well-known, and arguably too extensive for a mere blog post. The main problem seems to lie with the targets, which some perceive as not ambitious enough, particularly taking into consideration findings from MIT indicating that temperatures could increase by up to 3.7% by 2100. Developing countries have the most to lose if this situation arises, as highlighted by Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, an indigenous women’s leader from Chad who spoke at the COP21 conference about the threat rising temperatures pose to development in her country. Yet money remains a sticking point; while developing countries need aid to adapt to both climate change and the move towards green energy, countries with more to give don’t seem particularly willing to commit to any tangible targets.
The legality of the Paris Agreement is another grey area. There seems to be a legally binding element to the treaty, but there is confusion over what this legal form should be. The reality of getting 197 countries to agree universally to a treaty on climate change means some of the more forceful language had to be omitted, a disappointment to the EU and small island states who would have liked for the agreement to go further, ensuring countries meet their targets. However, this isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. The theory that a treaty must be legally binding to be effective didn’t hold for the Kyoto Protocol, the predecessor to the Paris treaty. Despite the internationally binding nature of that agreement, the United States failed to ratify it, and developing countries received a free-for-all pass on emissions.
The truly global nature of the Paris Agreement is what needs to be held onto. 197 countries agreed to it and it is expected to come into force by November 4. Countries known for releasing the most greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, such as India, China and the United States have all ratified the agreement earlier than expected, an endorsement that is likely to catalyse further action on climate change. Action is the crucial thing here, rather than further commitments. This is more likely to be achieved through global solidarity anyway, given the role of diplomatic relations in this globalised world, as it is possible that countries failing to meet their commitments could suffer the weight of international exclusion instead of lengthy legal proceedings – a reality none care to face.
Meanwhile, developments continue and while not explicitly related to the Paris Agreement, are interesting signposts about what could be around the corner. The International Criminal Court (ICC) recently decided that environmental crimes would be included in their remit – a change of focus for the court of last resort. While the weaknesses of the ICC, such as problematic bias and ineffectiveness, are well-documented, this demonstrates an expanded focus on regulating the environment and holding actors who abuse it to account. While there has been no indication that state governments will be brought before the ICC for failing to reach their targets, the precedent set by the American bill which allows families of victims of 9/11 to sue Saudi Arabia shows countries’ previously concrete immunity is no longer secure. While it seems unlikely that this could be used as a way for countries to hold others accountable for failing to meet their agreements, it is interesting to note that this law doesn’t come from the state level. Instead, the suit comes from families impacted, arguably harder to ignore.
Progress over the last year has been encouraging, but it must not lag. The early ratification of the Paris Agreement is a sign that states are finally beginning to take notice of President Obama’s words from 2015, that “no challenge poses a greater threat to our future and future generations than a change in climate.” Let’s all hope our leaders are up to the task.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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