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COP21 — a legal or political deal?

Jenilee Guebert, Senior Research Associate, G7 and G20 Research Groups
December 2, 2015

Over 150 countries from around the world are gathered at the 21st Conference of the Parties in Paris, where they are expected to deliver a new universal agreement on climate change. More than 170 countries have already made promises through their intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs). There is no question that an agreement will come at the end of the discussions. However, questions still remain about whether that agreement will be legally binding, and whether that matters.

Some believe that it is critical that any agreement made in Paris is legally binding. They believe that the agreement will be ineffective if it lacks the force of an internationally binding treaty. Others suggest that it does not matter whether the agreement is binding. Countries typically keep promises made regardless of whether they are binding in law. Therefore, emphasis should be placed on ensuring that countries make commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), and that they do so in a way that matters. A variety of mechanisms could be employed to monitor and ensure compliance afterwards.

However, despite how one views the impact of an internationally binding agreement on country compliance, coming out with a binding agreement in Paris does matter. It matters in the sense that it will reflect how serious countries finally are about tackling this global climate crisis. And it is a crisis that countries need to be serious about addressing.

There is a consensus that average global surface temperatures need to be limited to an increase of 2°C in order to avoid dangerous consequences. However, from the INDCs submitted, it is predicted that the temperature will increase between 2.7° and 3.5° by 2100. Further, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has indicated that by 2050, GHGs need to be reduced by 40–70% compared to 2010. By 2100, carbon neutrality (zero emissions) needs to be achieved. Thus, it will take serious political will if these targets are ever to be achieved.

Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol — both binding international treaties — commitments were made to reduce GHGs. However, the Protocol applied exclusively to developed countries. With China anticipated to surpass all of the members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (which includes western European countries, the United States, Canada, Mexico and Japan) combined in emissions, it is critical that developing countires be included in any agreement that is made. Therefore, what is in the agreement matters.

The groundwork for the agreement was laid back in February in Geneva when the negotiating text was developed. Discussions have continued since then. What remains to be seen in Paris is whether the political will to take real action on climate change has finally come. A binding internationl agreement will be a signal that countries are finally ready to take climate change seriously. What is in the agreement — binding or not — will be even more important.

For further information, see John Kirton and Ella Kokotsis, The Global Governance of Climate Change: G7, G20 and UN Leadership (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015).

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Jenilee Guebert, JD, is a Senior Research Associate with the G7 and G8 Research Group and the G20 Research Group. She provides advice, guidance and research on global health and climate change, and how the two areas intersect. She leads the work on global health law. She has a JD from the University of Alberta and BA in political science from the University of Calgary in 2007. She has pursued academic studies at the University of Toronto, the University of Saskatchewan and Georgetown University. She has been involved in working with various governments, non-governmental organizations and multilateral institutions on how to address global health challenges, climate change and the global financial crisis. Recent publications include "Use and Misuse of Material Transfer Agreements: Lessons in Proportionality from Research, Repositories and Litigation" (2015), PLoS Biology 13(2): 1-12; "Implementing Socially Responsible Licensing for Global Health: Beyond Neglected Diseases" (2014), Science Translational Medicine 6(260): 1-4; and "Connecting Climate Change and Health: The Global Governance Gap," in John J. Kirton et al., eds., Moving Health Sovereignty in Africa (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).

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