The outcome from Paris

Health, Safety and Environmental Matters Series

Safety, Health and Environment Matters

At the end of November, delegates from 195 countries, and the EU, met at Le Bourget Airport outside Paris, for the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC Treaty, and the 11th Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol.

On 12 December, the negotiations, which had run on into the weekend, concluded with an agreement. For a detailed summary of that Agreement, prepared by lawyers in our San Francisco, Vienna and Brisbane offices who were closely involved in monitoring negotiations at the COPMOP, see our recent client alert. The Agreement, which will be legally binding in international law once signed and ratified by at least 55 countries that account for at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions, contains an ambitious goal.

It commits the parties to keeping long-term global warming "well below 2oC above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels". 

Those targets are ambitious, and many doubt whether they are realistic, given current and likely future emissions. However they certainly send a strong political signal that so many countries are prepared to work towards a low carbon economy. 

Agreement on the targets was reached in part because while the framework Agreement will be legally binding, the commitments set out in the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), on which the meeting of those targets will largely depend, will not be. The distinction was crucial in obtaining the agreement of the US Government. President Obama is strongly in favour of action on climate change, but faces strong opposition in Congress, and could not risk agreeing to a treaty that would require ratification by the Senate. 

188 countries have already signed up to INDCs. On at least one estimate, the commitments in those INDCs currently fall some way short of meeting even the 2oC target. However it is hoped that the review process provided for in the Agreement, and international group pressure, will lead to gradual raising of 'ambition' as regards the INDCs, so that the targets can be met. 

The COPMOP can be said to have achieved its goal, to produce an agreement which will be legally binding and take effect by 2020 when current commitments under the Kyoto Protocol expire. Indeed the accompanying decision goes further in terms of making significant provision for enhanced action prior to 2020. 

COP 21 provided a happy contrast with the 2009 COPMOP in Copenhagen which sought - but failed - to meet a similar goal. 

There were significant tensions at the summit but some time in advance there had been a quiet confidence that agreement would be achieved. Why the contrast? It is clear that the lessons of 2009 COPMOP had been learned. 

An important development in advance of the COPMOP was Chinese American Co-operation, discussed in the first article of this issue. 

That was supplemented by an accord between China and France in which China agreed to support five-yearly reviews of the INDCs aimed in particular at securing that developing countries "progressively orient themselves towards quantifiable reductions or limitations in emissions". 

One argument which had previously hampered negotiations is that developed countries should bear all of the cost and burden because their historic emissions caused the problem in the first place. That argument is being undermined by the increasing wealth of many developing countries and their rapidly increasing share of global emissions. It is China’s increasing wealth, despite the recent slowdown, and awareness of the problems caused by rapid industrialisation, which has effected a revolution in China’s own approach to the environment. Astonishingly this includes the recent introduction of a new role for NGOs in the enforcement of environmental compliance in that country, and specialist environmental sections in the courts. 

It is also evident that France, whose foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, travelled extensively to China in the 18 months preceding the COPMOP and who himself presided at Le Bourget, set considerable store by the success of the COPMOP. 

France was clearly determined to avoid the tactical errors of the 'top-down' approach adopted by the Danish presidency and other EU delegations at Copenhagen. Emphasis was placed instead on a 'bottom up' approach in which agreement would be sought on the basis of what different states had indicated they would be prepared to agree to. 

France also made special arrangements for a 'civil society village' for NGOs at Le Bourget, in contrast to the treatment they received at the 2009 COPMOP when they were turned out into the cold streets of Copenhagen in winter. 

Lastly, the COPMOP can be said to have obtained the support of both God and Mammon. It obtained the blessing of the Pope, whose encyclical Laudato si’ seems at least in part to have been issued to encourage progress at the COPMOP. Furthermore CEOs from 78 global companies signed an open letter in advance of the summit, calling on governments to take bold action. The signatories included Sir Nigel Knowles, Global Co-Chairman of DLA Piper. Read the open letter here

<Go back to Carbon Matters