The Paris Agreement- A triumph of multilateral diplomacy?

Today marks Mother Earth day, which celebrates the planet’s bountiful nature and renews emphasis on humanity’s need to protect it. Appropriately, the same day sees the Paris Agreement opening for signatures at a ceremony at the UN’s New York Headquarters. The agreement, created within the framework of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), was settled upon by 195 countries and the European Union at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) on the 12th December 2015 and was championed by UN secretary General Ban Ki Moon as “a resounding success for multilateralism”. Hailed as a landmark by governments, environmental groups and the private sector, it is the first international climate change agreement that involves the world’s largest polluting nations, such as the US, Russia and China.
The signing ceremony will be a grand event to encourage attendance so that states sign as early as possible and maintain the momentum of December’s success. Upon signing, states will commit to avoiding actions that “defeat the object and purpose” of the agreement and to beginning the process of accepting or ratifying domestically. It will be open for signatures for one year and will only enter into force if 55 nations that represent at least 55% of the world’s global carbon emissions sign in that time. This is likely to be achieved very quickly as in March the US and China (who together accounted for over 40% of global Carbon emissions in 2011) announced their intention to sign a joint presidential statement. Various other nations, such as the rapidly industrialising India, have made similar pledges.

The agreement contains a number of ambitious aims, specifically a declared goal to keep the global average temperature “well below 2 °C”, above pre-industrial temperature levels, the temperature at which a number of environmental scientists have speculated would cause catastrophic impact. This explicitly stated, low figure has been celebrated as one of the Agreement’s most notable strengths, as it pressures nations to ensure that carbon emissions reach their peak in the near future, preventing them from constantly delaying implementation under a vague target. Nevertheless, whilst the Paris Agreement was a landmark in terms of consensus and goal setting, as the date of signing approaches and nations prepare themselves to actually implement what was agreed upon, it is important to consider whether this is also a landmark in terms of impact. Whilst the treaty contains some laudable aims and has done well to unite the previously fragmented international landscape where its predecessor the Kyoto Accord failed, the means by which it seeks to achieve these reveals a disconnect between rhetoric and structure.

The greatest weakness of the agreement stems from its self-determined voluntary nature, as it is not a legally bound punitive treaty. Under the agreement each nation determines and submits its own emission reduction targets through plans titled Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which are ratcheted up in ambition every 5 years. Although a verifying monitoring system has been designed so that nations send proof and updates on their progress to an, as-of-yet, unannounced UN Committee, the targets are all set by states with no floor level for ambition. Although the lack of data from post-2030 makes a clear analysis difficult, a number of studies have already estimated that, based on nation’s intended NDC proposals, global temperature could still see rises of up to 3°C. This discrepancy between stated intent and implemented reality highlights the Paris agreement’s main weakness; it sets a holistic goal whilst not establishing a mechanism to see individual nations’ accountability make it achievable.

Should a state fail in attaining its INDC targets, there is legally no punitive system in place to allow consequent political or economic sanctions. The agreement instead relies on international pressure from other nations, the media and the general public to ensure implementation. This optimistically assumes that the public is united in favour of climate protection, whereas in America (whose inclusion is essential) Republican Candidates for the upcoming Presidential election have mobilised support as a result of their pledge to drop the Paris agreement. Moreover, even in the four months since its agreement there has been evidence to show pressure alone cannot ensure action. In February, the Australian government announced its intention to cut more than 350 scientific jobs relating to climate modelling and monitoring over two years. The decision was met with condemnation from the international scientific and political community, who pointed out in a widely circulated open letter that the cuts “severely curtailed Australia’s capacity to deliver on key promises of the Paris agreement”. However, despite this outcry the cuts are still scheduled to proceed and risk setting a worrying precedent.

The Guardian newspaper branded the Paris Agreement the “world’s biggest diplomatic success”, but can diplomacy really be measured simply by the number of signatories if this comes at the expense of an overarching goal or cooperative justice? Although it is a treaty praised for its multilateral involvement, the final document is contradictorily characterised by a Westphalian opt-in system of self-enforcement. Measures and modifications made to appease polluting developed nations and ensure they remain at the table has largely compromised the agreement’s ability to actually make its signatories accountable to pursuing their stated goals. Consequently, in its effort to get “all hands on deck”, the Paris treaty can best be described as slightly delaying the speed at which the world inevitably careers towards the rocks, rather than actually changing the course.

by Grace Carroll


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