- The Universal Climate Agreement Is Historic

- We have left the world we have seen the last 50 years, and overcome the division in developed / developing states in matters of climate change, says Professor Christina Voigt. The Paris Agreement on Climate Change reflects a very different view of the world, creates more openness, and has ambitions but grants flexibility to the parties. Yet, only time will show whether parties actually will live up to the expectations, she says.

Eiffel Tower in Paris with script "Paris climat 2015"

The Eiffel Tower during the climate negotiations. Photo: Ministère des affaires étrangères.

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change, adopted at the climate summit on 12 December 2015, has been hailed as an ambitious instrument to tackle the greatest challenge of our time – and it has been criticized for being unrealistic and vague.

Voigt is a legal advisor to the Norwegian government team and took herself part in the negotiations in Paris. In a lunch seminar at the PluriCourts Centre of Excellence for the Study of the Legitimacy of the Global Judiciary, she provided insight into the discussions and a first analysis of the outcome of the negotiations.

High hopes for a broad agreement

On the opening day of the COP 21, the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 150 heads of state and government assembled in Paris.

Such a density of high-level government representation is unique, not only in climate negotiations, but also in international politics generally, Voigt says. This showed the collective ambition to solve this most pressing issue of our time, and set the tone for the negotiations.

The agreement, adopted after two weeks of negotiations, contains a goal of keeping global warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius and “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees”. States will reach this aim by reducing emissions and at the same time trying to remove the consequences of emissions.

Who is to bear the burden of the fight against climate change?

Traditionally, the responsibilities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions were divided between industrialized and developed countries.

The Paris Summit put an end to this binary differentiation and made it clear that all countries have a part to play in reducing emissions, Voigt explains. Every state has to submit national climate plans, so-called nationally determined contributions. These plans are evaluated regularly, and need to be renewed and upgraded every five years. All countries must show progression in their climate goals, and must apply the highest possible level of ambition in every plan they submit.

Every 5 years, there has to be a global stock take which assesses the collective effort for reaching the goals. The outcome of the collective meeting in turn informs the evaluation of the domestic aims.

This model is novel in the sense that it combines dynamism – five-year cycles of renewed climate plans and evaluations – and flexibility for national states, Voigt explains. It allows states to decide themselves on how to contribute to the 2º C goal, but requires them to do as best as they can. The high level of transparency of the process empowers civil society and the international community to question a country’s seriousness and ambitions in combating climate change. The cyclical approach ensures that the process does not come to a stand-still.

Yet, Voigt explains that the new agreement accepts that countries, depending on their development status and wealth, have diverse starting points. While every party is progressing individually through its climate plans, some differentiations remain. Developed countries are expected to have to have the strongest ambitions, and should also bear the largest financial burden of stopping global warming. However, developing countries are encouraged to contribute voluntarily.

The Paris outcome – a binding treaty and a powerful non-binding decision

In Paris, the states adopted a decision, and annexed to this decision, we find the climate agreement. Being an international treaty, the agreement will need to be ratified by the states. When it enters into force, it will be binding on the state parties. In contrast, the decision is not legally binding. However, it is of great importance: It gives flesh to the agreement, even before the latter has entered into force.

In addition, while the agreement has been very carefully drafted so as not to overstep boundaries and ensure smooth ratification processes in the national states, the decision could be formulated more boldly. Contentious elements, such as a concrete number for financing the fight against climate change, were moved from the binding agreement to the non-binding decision.

Successful negotiation tactics by the French government

Voigt provided an inside view from the negotiation process. She applauded the preparation and the conduct of negotiations by the French government, which allowed for continuous progress in the debates. Instead of discussing the agreement clause by clause – which would have endangered the process – the negotiators were only given full drafts of the text.

The negotiations took place day and night. It was very exhausting, and deprivation of sleep clearly made it easier to finally reach consensus. When we were given the last draft of the text, states were informed that the adoption was set for the evening of the same day. This clearly raised the threshold for submitting last-minute amendments and contributed to the success of the summit.

Will the Paris Agreement ever enter into force?

The new climate treaty will enter into force when 55 parties representing 55 percent of global emissions have ratified it. It is uncertain when this number will be reached. Experience with the Paris Agreement’s predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, shows that ratification processes in national parliaments can be lengthy and uncertain. Many states, such as the United States, never became parties to the Protocol; others left it in recent years. Voigt believes that the US are never going to ratify the new treaty. However, she believes that the US will be bound by it through acceptance by presidential decree, and that this is going to happen fairly soon.

By Stephanie Schmölzer

Published Aug. 10, 2016 10:15 AM - Last modified Aug. 10, 2016 10:28 AM