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Toward a Legally Binding Climate Agreement at UNGA

Brittaney Warren, G7 Research Group
October 10, 2017

The 72nd United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) opened on September 12, 2017, with the General Debate opening on September 19 under the theme of "Focusing on People: Striving for Peace and a Decent Life for All on a Sustainable Planet." Miroslav Lajčák, Slovakia's former deputy prime minister and UNGA president, opened the debate by expressing solidarity with Dominica and others in the path of Hurricane Maria. In the first minute of his speech he said he wished he could congratulate "you all for meeting your climate-related commitments." But he could not.

Although Lajčák could not find any reason to congratulate the world due to the "worsening effects of climate change," he did take a moment to "celebrate" the international community's pledge to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — touching on the UNGA's theme — as well as its pledge to the Paris Agreement on climate change.

This latter pledge, however, is in doubt, as the world's most powerful country and largest emitter of climate warming greenhouse gases has undermined the recent progress made on international climate action. In early June, U.S. president Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement. The announcement was met with condemnation from world leaders, most strongly from fellow G7 member France and from U.S. states and cities. Without the full support of national governments, preventing global temperatures from reaching the "tipping point" will be nearly impossible.

Yet even if Trump agrees to keep the U.S. in the Paris Agreement, having since indicated he may, the agreement itself is weak as it fails even to mention in passing the key causes of anthropogenic climate change — namely agriculture and the burning of fossil fuels. Moreover, even if every signatory, including the U.S., fully implements its nationally determined contribution to mitigate climate change, it would not be enough to turn off the furnace. Money alone, i.e., providing enough financing for countries to implement their climate targets, as Lajčák suggests, is an important contributing tool but not a durable solution.

What is required is a normative shift — one that sees collective values move away from viewing the Earth as something we have inherited to understanding it is something we are borrowing. As norms often find themselves expressed as hard law, progress on climate could be accelerated by legalizing international environmental agreements, a quality the Paris Agreement lacks.

This is what French president Emmanuel Macron pushed at the UNGA this year. In his address to the General Assembly he spent approximately two minutes speaking about the urgency of taking climate action. In describing the refugee as the symbol of the current era, Macron highlighted several causes contributing to the refugee crisis, starting with the climate. He stated that "we must show responsibility" and "that the planet will not negotiate with us."

Macron reiterated that France would host a climate meeting in Paris on November 12, 2017, and confirmed that it would allocate €5 billion for climate action between now and 2020. Most significantly, he advocated a global pact for the environment, with the goal of "forging international law for the coming century."

Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, gave strong support for Macron's initiative. He stated that "we lack an overarching, legally binding framework that brings [the many international organizations and instruments to protect the environment] together and gives them greater coherence and force. This is why the initiative on the Global Pact for the Environment is so timely."

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, host of the 2018 G7 Charlevoix Summit, also expressed support for climate action, highlighting Canada's role in helping to negotiate the Paris Agreement. Yet he shied from explicitly supporting a global pact. Trudeau instead dedicated a large portion of his UNGA address to discussing Canada's distinctive national value of multiculturalism, and emphasized the importance of reconciling past and continuing wrongs, such as Canada's relationship with Indigenous peoples, and the value of welcoming and integrating refugees into Canadian society.

The comments by the G7 members of the EU and Canada, and France's effort's to legalize climate change action, was in stark contrast to Trump's 45 minute address in which climate change was not mentioned at all.

Thus France and its climate allies have demonstrated their support for the Paris Agreement and their willingness to move forward with or without the support of the United States. But the proposal for a hard law agreement with enforcement mechanisms also demonstrates a recognition of the failures of the Paris Agreement as well as the globally shared failure to act as responsible caretakers.

The Earth's systems cannot be paid to cool down. Shifting values from climate control to climate stewardship, and enforcing those values, is necessary in order for the UN and the world to ensure international peace, security and prosperity for all.


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Brittaney WarrenBrittaney Warren is a researcher with the G7 and G8 Research Group, the G20 Research Group and the BRICS Research Group, based at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Trinity College at the University of Toronto. She has worked in Spain and in Peru where she conducted field research on a sustainable development project with women living in extreme poverty. She has conducted research on the compliance of CARICOM members with their summit commitments on non-communicable diseases. Brittaney leads the social media strategy and marketing program for the G7 and G20 Research Groups' books and works on climate change, and was the lead researcher on an e-book project on "Delivering Sustainable Energy Access." Follow her at @brittaneywarren.


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