Overline: Opportunities and risks, instruments and actors
Headline: The Paris Agreement and Global Climate Policy

Human activities are largely responsible for climate change, which is already having an observable effect on our planet. Particularly emissions from the burning of fossil fuels such as oil and gas have led to an increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Key indicators of climate change – including rising average temperatures, melting glaciers, and rising sea levels – are expected to have devastating consequences for humans and environments. Tackling the challenge posed by climate change will require a coordinated and global effort.

Acknowledging that climate change is a common concern of humankind, delegations from 195 states successfully negotiated a new and binding international agreement to protect the global climate at the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held in Paris in December 2015. The successful adoption of the Paris Agreement was also due to the hard work of a host of non-state actors, including NGOs and research institutions working to address the challenges of climate change.

From the founding of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to the Paris Agreement

Robust scientific findings on the negative impacts of anthropogenic pollutants are crucial to international cooperation for climate protection and the development of appropriate legal instruments. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an important actor within this context. Founded in 1988, this scientific body is tasked with reviewing and assessing the current state of knowledge relevant to climate change. In doing so, the IPCC supports science-based decision-making within the political sphere.

The Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol

The first binding international agreement on climate protection, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, was adopted on 9 May 1992 and signed by heads of state at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro (Rio Conference) later that year. The agreement is a so-called framework convention and is supplemented by protocols specifying particular commitments. Among these is the Kyoto Protocol, which was negotiated in 1997 and entered into force in 2005. The Kyoto Protocol places concrete and legally binding obligations on industrialised nations (the so-called Annex I Parties) to reduce the emission of anthropogenic greenhouse gases.

With the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol due to expire in 2012, governments agreed to begin negotiations on an emissions reductions treaty for the post-Kyoto era at the 2007 Conference of Parties (COP) in Bali. These negotiations failed to deliver an agreement at the 2009 COP in Copenhagen. Negotiations were subsequently relaunched at the 2011 COP in Durban, where governments agreed to negotiate and adopt a new and binding agreement on climate protection that would apply to all members of the UNFCCC by 2015. This agreement would come into force in time for the end of the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol (Kyoto II) in 2020, which was extended under an agreement reached at the 2012 COP in Doha.

However, not all of the states that chose to ratify Kyoto I have extended their obligations under Kyoto II. Even the European Union has failed to ratify Kyoto II so far. This delay is due to the complex division of competences between Member States and institutions within the EU, which requires that the agreement be ratified by each of the Member States as well as the EU itself. The Council of the European Union adopted a resolution on its ratification on 12 June 2015 and the onus now lies with the individual Member States to complete their respective ratification processes. Notwithstanding this, efforts are already under way at the European level to implement Kyoto II. In line with the agreement reached by the parties to the UNFCCC at the 2011 COP in Durban to negotiate a new climate protection treaty, this process was concluded successfully with the adoption of the Paris Agreement in late 2015. The agreement entails binding obligations and is expected to enter into force in 2020

The Paris Agreement

One of the key innovations of the Paris Agreement is the adoption of a clearly defined target to limit global warming. The signatory states have agreed to limit the rise in global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. In order to achieve this, the agreement requires parties to prepare, communicate and maintain so-called “Nationally Determined Contributions” (NDCs) that they intend to achieve. These national commitments represent a further departure from the model of the Kyoto Protocol.

The Paris Agreement does not include any language on precisely what states should include in these commitments. While the emissions reduction targets specified for each country under the terms of the Kyoto Protocol were the outcome of multilateral negotiations, under the Paris Agreement states are invited to determine their national contributions as they see fit. The NDCs submitted so far under the Paris Agreement will not suffice to keep global warming below the two degree target. However, the agreement also requires that states review the implementation of their NDCs and update their pledges every five years. The first evaluation of the implementation of the Paris Agreement is scheduled for 2023.

The Paris Agreement also differs from the Kyoto Protocol in terms of the nature of the commitments made by the parties. The Kyoto Protocol is based on commitment to achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions with the aim of mitigating climate change. Under the terms of the Paris Agreement, on the other hand, states are able to include other climate policy measures within the scope of their national commitments – including measures to adapt to climate change. The Paris Agreement is built around three main goals: reducing global warming, enhancing the ability to adapt to climate change, and ensuring a constant supply of funding for necessary measures. This triad is flanked by a range of regulatory structures, including measures on loss and damage associated with climate change impacts, capacity building, and technology transfer together with a framework to ensure the transparent implementation of the Paris Agreement.

The formulation of a long-term goal is another key difference between the Paris Agreement and the Kyoto Protocol: the parties to the Paris Agreement have committed to achieving “a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century” and to ensuring that global greenhouse gas emissions peak “as soon as possible.” Precisely how they will achieve this will be the subject of future negotiations.

Recent developments in climate law

In order for the Paris Agreement to enter into force, it must first be ratified by at least 55 parties to the UNFCCC accounting for at least 55 per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. At a high-level signing ceremony held in New York on 22 April 2016, a record-breaking 174 states (plus the EU) signed up to the Paris Agreement. In doing so, they have expressed their intent to abide by it in the future. The actual terms of the Paris Agreement will only become legally binding once it has been ratified. In most cases this will require that parties complete their respective domestic processes for the implementation of international law. The first states to ratify the Paris Agreement belong to the group of Small Island Developing States, whose members are already experiencing significant adverse climate change impacts. The agreement is due to enter into force in 2020. The parties to the Paris Agreement are to hold annual meetings to coordinate its further development and implementation.

The parties to the Paris Agreement also plan to reconvene in 2018 – before the agreement even enters into force – to take stock of their efforts towards realising its long-term objectives. The Paris Agreement is preceded by a decision of the Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC. While the decision does not require ratification and is not considered legally binding, it contains important details relating to the content of the agreement – particularly with respect to period before it enters into force. Among other things, it includes an invitation to the IPCC to provide a special report in 2018 on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. This invitation was accepted by the IPCC at its 41st Session, which was held in Nairobi in April 2016.

The Climate and Clean Air Coalition – a complementary actor in the global climate policy landscape

In addition to the internationally binding legal instruments outlined here, a variety of other fora, initiatives, and actors make important contributions to climate protection. Among them is the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants (CCAC). A voluntary international initiative, the coalition was founded in 2012 with the support of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and its membership now includes over 100 partner countries, non-state partners, and intergovernmental organisations.

The CCAC is focused on achieving reductions in the emission of Short-Lived Climate Pollutants (SLCPs) as a means to protect human health and improve food security while combating climate change and air pollution. The strategy developed by the CCAC to tackle SLCP emissions could potentially slow the global warming expected to be reached by 2050 by around 0.6 °Celsius. The work of the CCAC is especially important for efforts towards global climate protection, given that the national commitments declared under the Paris Agreement to date will not be sufficient to limit global warming to below the agreed level of 2 °C above pre-industrial levels.

How the IASS contributes to international climate law

The IASS contributes to international debate on climate law in a number of ways. As a non-state partner of the CCAC, the IASS is currently involved in three initiatives. Through its involvement in the Brick Production Initiative, the IASS supports the efforts of various states to implement projects aimed at reducing the emission of SLCPs and other pollutants by brick manufacturers. As part of the Regional Assessments Initiative, the IASS is helping to evaluate the impact of short-lived climate pollutants on the climate and air quality in Asia, with the aim of identifying effective measures to reduce emissions that are tailored to the situation in different regions. The IASS also recently joined the Oil & Gas Initiative of the CCAC, which seeks to reduce emissions of short-lived climate pollutants from oil and gas industry operations. Finally, the IASS is also represented on the Steering Committee of the CCAC by Birgit Lode.

The research project ELIAS is the centrepiece of the IASS’s work on international climate law. Research conducted within the framework of ELIAS (Environmental Law and Institutions for Air, Climate, and Sustainability) aims to address the following key matters relating to actors and instruments in climate law:

  • How can scientific findings about the Earth system and the climate be successfully transformed into sustainable policies?
  • What kind of legal framework is necessary for this to happen? What institutional structures and incentives are required?
  • What role do initiatives and organisations play in this, from the local through to the global level?

Publication list of the research group climate policy

Header image: COP Paris, CC0 1.0; Photo on front page: UN Photo/Andrea Brizzi