“Climate Change is the defining issue of our time and we are at a defining moment.” - The United Nations[i]
The climate emergency this generation faces is enormous. This challenge may seem insurmountable, but it is truly not. Effective, immediate change can drastically alter the direction in which the future of our planet is heading.
This, however, requires cooperation. Cooperation between individuals, corporations, and, on the largest scale, countries.
Quoted from “BBVA Open Mind”[ii], “at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the world is confronted with a kind of a cooperation paradox.” The struggle for international cooperation comes from countries’ habitual prioritisation of profit over environmental benefit.
In encouraging global cooperation for a common cause, many legal issues arise.
So, how can international cooperation be achieved?
One way international cooperation can be achieved is through the use of treaties. A treaty is defined as a “formally concluded and ratified agreement between states.” International agreements are formal commitments or understandings between two or more countries. The countries bound by an international agreement are generally classified as “States Parties.”[iii] Treaties are agreements to implement certain actions within state’s own country. By ratifying a treaty, a country voluntarily accepts legal obligations under international law. The process of entering a treaty differs between countries.
How can treaties protect the environment?
Treaties can protect the environment in the same way they protect other important concepts such as human rights. By creating a comprehensive plan with action steps and universal targets, treaties can encourage countries around the world to make communal steps forward toward a more sustainable future. Within international law, a treaty creates legal obligations for its parties; and compliance with these obligations is not voluntary.[iv]
What was the Kyoto Protocol?
Quoted directly from Europa[v], the “1997 Kyoto Protocol was an agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – and is the world's only legally binding treaty to reduce greenhouse emissions.” It committed specific, developed countries and economies to limit and reduce greenhouse gases, in accordance with individual targets. The Kyoto Protocol was adopted on 11 December 1997, and entered into force, becoming international law on 16 February 2005.[vi]
Was this successful?
According to “Circular Ecology”[vii], the results show the Kyoto Protocol parties reduced their CO2 emissions by 12.5% between 1990 and 2012. This far exceeded the target of 4.7%. This, however, was only implemented in certain, developed countries – specifically targeting those able to make large change to their economy and national behaviour patterns. Furthermore, many also claim that Kyoto Protocol actually failed due to “deficiencies in the structure of the agreement, such as the exemption of developing countries from reductions requirements, or the lack of an effective emissions trading scheme.”[viii]
Was this protocol legally binding? Or legally enforceable?
The Kyoto Protocol established legally binding emissions reduction targets and created penalties for noncompliance. This was able to be enforced as there were a smaller number of participating countries, and all countries had the capability to meet their individual targets. These targets were tailored to the varying levels of wealth of the country. The targets were decided as percentage of emissions from a chosen base year and then a national cap on greenhouse gas emissions was created. These specific targets made the Kyoto protocol easy to track, monitor, review, verify and legally enforce. These also ensured transparency and allowed the Parties of the protocol to be held accountable.
What is the Paris Agreement?
Defined by the NRDC, the Paris Agreement is “a landmark environmental accord that was adopted by nearly every nation in 2015 to address climate change and its negative impacts.”[ix] As a part of this, the most significant climate issue tackled was that of reducing greenhouse gases emissions, in an attempt to limit global temperature increase. Effectively, the Paris Agreement replaced the Kyoto Protocol. “The Paris Agreement could not take effect until at least 55 nations representing at least 55 percent of global emissions had formally joined.” The Paris Agreement officially was able to take effect on October 5, 2016, and the agreement actually went into force 30 days later on November 4, 2016.
The aims of the Paris Agreement, referenced from the NRDC are as follows:
Limit global temperature rise by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Provide a framework for transparency, accountability, and the achievement of more ambitious targets.
Mobilise support for climate change mitigation and adaptation in developing nations.
Is this currently successful?
In certain regards, the Paris Agreement has been very successful. The aim of the Paris Agreement differs from the Kyoto Protocol as is it not legally enforceable and is not limited to developed countries. Because of this, and the less specific targets, the Paris Agreement has not yielded the same results, from already lowered targets, as the Kyoto Protocol. According to “Inside Climate News”[x], scientists involved in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found “nearly two-thirds of the pledges under the Paris climate agreement are "totally insufficient" to meet critical climate targets” as they currently are. Furthermore, some of the world's greatest carbon emitters will “continue to [further] increase their greenhouse gas emissions.”[xi]
Despite this, the Paris Agreement was incredibly influential in a political sense. A great shift has been created in the “climate diplomacy” “paradigm” through this Agreement, seeing an enormous number of countries agree to the treaty[xii]. This is a momentous shift in politics, seeing an international spread of parties working together for a common cause. The Paris Agreement is a notable occurrence in both International and Environmental Law.
Is this legally binding? Or legally enforceable?
The Paris Agreement sets “no limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual countries and contains no enforcement mechanisms, but instead establishes a framework for international negotiations of future agreements, or protocols, to set binding emissions targets.” The reasoning for the looser legality of these aims is to encourage all countries - rich, poor, developed, and developing – to aim to lessen their greenhouse gas emissions. Within the agreement, there are no specific commitments countries should make, therefore nations can voluntarily choose to set their emissions targets, and countries acquire no legal penalties for falling short of their proposed targets. The Paris Agreement simply requires the monitoring, reporting, and reassessing of the countries targets over time.
To achieve effective, worldwide change, political cooperation is absolutely necessary. Recognising the importance of International Environmental Law, in regard to global treaties and agreements, is one of the first steps to ensuring a more sustainable future for the planet.
[ii] https://www.bbvaopenmind.com/en/articles/the-future-of-global-cooperation-what-is-missing-what-could-be-successful/ [iii] https://www.phe.gov/s3/law/Pages/International.aspx [iv] https://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/26/04/2016/paris-agreement-when-treaty-not-treaty#:~:text=The%20Paris%20Agreement%20does%20qualify,these%20obligations%20is%20not%20voluntary. [v]https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/strategies/progress/kyoto_1_en#:~:text=The%201997%20Kyoto%20Protocol%20%E2%80%93%20an,treaty%20to%20reduce%20greenhouse%20emissions. [vi] https://unfccc.int/kyoto_protocol [vii] https://circularecology.com/news/the-kyoto-protocol-climate-change-success-or-global-warming-failure [viii] https://muse.jhu.edu/article/493430/pdf [ix] https://www.nrdc.org/stories/paris-climate-agreement-everything-you-need-know#:~:text=The%20Paris%20Agreement%20is%20a,change%20and%20its%20negative%20impacts.&text=The%20agreement%20includes%20commitments%20from,strengthen%20those%20commitments%20over%20time.