Crosslands Bulletin

May 28, 2017

Skip the Hoopla, Read the Paris Treaty

Most of what people are saying in the immediate aftermath of the climate agreement is self-serving.

US lead negotiatorTodd Stern and Trigg Talley deliberate on the next to last day of the Paris climate convention. Photo [] by IISD/Kiara Worth

[This article was first published on 15 December 2015]

Whatever the warming denialists or the alarmists, or wingnut politicians are saying about the Paris Agreement on climate in its immediate aftermath, most of it is hogwash.  Decide what the deal means for you and your company by reading the text.  It has a main part of just over 19 pages and a 12-page annex.  Read the annex first.  It lists the obligations and pledges the parties agree on.  The main part gives details about how the provisions in annex are to be accomplished.

Here are a few facts to get you off and running on the right foot.

1. The content is no surprise.
The foundation for the Paris Agreement was laid 10 years ago in Montreal.  White House negotiators cleared a pathway for voluntary approaches to cutting carbon emissions under the UN’s umbrella. 

The Kyoto Protocol had bifurcated the world into those with legal commitments for carbon dioxide reductions and those without.  The US led the attack at the December 2005 meeting of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate (UNFCCC).  The outcome in Montreal left the EU and its Kyoto allies to continue a losing battle that wasted a full decade. 

Through Democratic and Republican administrations, the US aimed to have all the major economic powers on the globe promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a level of their own choosing.  During 2014 during the run-up to Paris, which many considered to be a last-ditch attempt at a comprehensive international accord, the US submitted a position paper to the UN (see U.S. Outlines Aims for Climate Accord Come 2015, 19 March 2014).  Further preparations were laid at the end of the year in Lima, Peru.   All the building blocks from the US are in the Paris Agreement.

2.  A few steps remain. 
The 196 nations participating in the UNFCCC conference did not actually vote to adopt the Paris Agreement.  The French diplomats chairing this year’s negotiations declared the achievement of a consensus: the best arrangement possible short of a total breakdown and collapse of the talks. 

Brace yourself for fanfare and bombast. The UN General Secretariat will open the agreement for signature at an elaborate ceremony in New York on 22 April 2016 — Earth Day.  It enters into force after 55 countries accounting for at least 55% of global emissions have filed their instruments of ratification with the UN. 

The US Senate does not have to approve it.  Why is a complicated legal answer.  Boiled down, nothing in the accord is binding; the marginal additional requirements already comply with other US treaties and domestic laws.  Otherwise, they are procedural in nature.   Or they are probably vague enough to survive a Supreme Court challenge.

The sword cuts both ways though.  If nothing binds the US, then future presidents can renege or backslide on some of the promises.  Fur will fly over the domestic mitigation actions needed to meet the “nationally determined contribution” to global carbon reductions.

3. No one has been silenced. 
Everyone with a voice before is guaranteed to be heard for years to come.  The assertion applies to civil society organizations as well.  This simple fact explains how the negotiators were comfortable declaring that a consensus had been reached.  Paris leaves hope and avenues to pursue for all causes. 

Aspirations about limiting global warming to 1.5 ̊C allows fossil fuel industry opponents to continue their fund-raising and campaigns to keeping it in the ground.
Two years ago in Warsaw, Poland, the parties to the UNFCCC established a separate, so-called loss and damage mechanism associated with reducing the impacts of climate change in developing countries.  The interim measure finds its way into the Paris Agreement.

The Warsaw mechanism will be strengthened, guided by an executive committee answering to the UNFCCC parties.  So low-lying nations have something to cling to while no one really has to worry about paying reparations.  Article 8 states that the loss and damage provisions do not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation. 

Carbon emissions trading, which has proven to be costly, largely ineffective, and prone to swindles, is not explicitly mentioned in the treaty.  But the cap-and-trade crowd is appeased by the recognition and considerations related to “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes.”  The Paris Agreement also replaces the abysmally dysfunctional Clean Development Mechanism in the Kyoto Protocol.  Another set of rules to generate tradable emission offsets are to be devised. 

4. Bureaucracy will flourish.
A key aim of the Paris Agreement is to give clarity, transparency, and much more confidence to the “nationally determined  contributions” countries — notably most developing ones — intend to take towards achieving the mitigation and adaptation objectives of the convention.  A army of contributors must be raised to hammer out the details.

Oversight committees, standing panels of experts, ad hoc working groups, task forces, and technical review panels are to be formed and empowered to develop modalities, guidelines, policies, procedures, strategies, and actions. The agreement includes a compliance mechanism, too, though with very modest powers.  The oversight committee of experts must operate in a non-punitive way.

5. Be alert.  The treaty has some curves.  
The twists and turns involved in such arduous compromises create dangers in certain sections of the agreement.  One case in point is Article 4.  Of course, each nation must prepare and report on the nationally determined contributions it intends to achieve.  But each party’s successive plan (delivered every five years) also “will represent a progression beyond the Party’s then current nationally determined contribution and reflect its highest possible ambition,  reflecting its common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.”  It is not difficult to imagine violent collisions among civil society organizations, industry, and politicians at this juncture.

For information contact UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Martin-Luther-King-Strasse 8, 53175 Bonn, Germany.  Tel: +49 228 815 1000; Fax: +49 228 815 1999; E-mail:

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