The 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) concluded on December 12, 2015 with the adoption of the Paris Agreement, described as the first universal, legally binding instrument to impose specific obligations on both developed and developing nations to address climate change. [Earth Justice Press Release; BBC] The agreement will require States parties to hold the increase in global temperature average to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, with a goal of limiting the increase to only 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit). The 195 countries that adopted the agreement by consensus last month also included an element of monitoring and accountability, requiring review of each State party’s progress in reducing emissions every five years. See Conference of the Parties, Adoption of the Paris Agreement, UN Doc. FCCC/CP/2015/L.9/Rev.1, 12 December 2015, para. 17. The Paris Agreement mandates a collective goal of contributing USD 100 billion or more per year by 2020 to support poorer countries in realizing climate goals; contribution by developed countries is obligatory, while developing countries’ participation is voluntary. [GRI]
Despite the laudable diplomatic achievements realized in the Paris Agreement, critics warn that without additional changes, these commitments will be insufficient to prevent an increase of 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, the red line temperature after which scientists agree changing patterns in weather and sea level become dangerous. [Earth Justice Press Release] Others question the efficacy of the agreement to bind rich nations to their commitments and ensure justice for citizens of poor island nations for whom new efforts will be too little, too late. [The Guardian: No Easy Victories]
Article 21(1) specifies that the Paris Agreement will enter into force 30 days following ratification by 55 States parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) whose combined greenhouse gas emissions make up no less than 55 percent of global totals, but the agreement is intended to begin imposing real obligations on States parties in 2020, the year the commitments made in the Kyoto Protocol will expire. [Radio Free Europe] The Paris Agreement will open for signature for a one-year period beginning on April 22, 2016.
Human Rights Implications
Negotiations of the Paris Agreement included discussions of the role or relevance of human rights to efforts to address climate change. [HRW; Al Jazeera] During the negotiations, human rights experts called on UNFCCC States parties to ensure that human rights were given adequate attention in the adopted agreement. [IACHR; OHCHR; OHCHR Press Release] They have urged States to sign the Geneva Pledge for Human Rights in Climate Action, a voluntary commitment to enhance cooperation between governmental authorities responsible for climate change and human rights initiatives. [OHCHR: UN Experts]
The final text uses the term “human rights” only in the preamble, stating that “Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity.” Earlier drafts had included references to human rights in the operative sections of the text, but that language was negotiated out at the insistence of countries including the United States, Norway, and Saudi Arabia. [CIEL; Reuters] The reduction or elimination of hunger and poverty is an overarching theme in the agreement. While the text does not impose specific requirements on States parties to abide by human rights norms in addressing climate change, Article 7(5) does, for example, “acknowledge” that States should “follow a country-driven, gender-responsive, participatory and fully transparent approach, taking into consideration vulnerable groups, communities and ecosystems…”
Prior sessions of the Conference of Parties (COP) have cut along the lines of developing versus developed nations, with poorer nations, and particularly island nations, arguing that they bear the brunt of the costs of global warming although richer nations are more responsible for climate change. [The Guardian: No Easy Victories] The effects of global warming have been felt in island nations where flooding and erosion have displaced populations (such as the thousands per day that were relocated to urban slums during India’s monsoon season), and increased soil salinity and severe weather have disrupted food supply, even eliminating large portions of their gross domestic product. [New Yorker] Such natural disasters and other consequences clearly implicate the fundamental rights of these countries’ residents.
Critics warn that many island nations will suffer if warming exceeds 1.5 degrees Celsius, well below the 2 degree limit established by the Paris Agreement and even further outstripped by current individual country commitments. [New Yorker] For these nations, the long term goals are the major victory; the financial goals have shifted from “mitigation” to “adaptation,” which allows for smaller countries that do not emit large amounts of carbon dioxide to use funds to make agricultural changes to reverse damage or benefit the environment. [New Yorker]
In 2011, at the 17th session of the COP to the UN Framework for Climate Change (UNFCC), States agreed to work toward a new climate change convention to replace 1997’s Kyoto Protocol and established the ad hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. See Conference of the Parties, Report of the Conference of the Parties on its seventeenth session, UN Doc. FCCC/CP/2011/9/Add.1, 15 March 2012, Decision 1/CP.17 paras. 3, 4. The new agreement was set to be completed by 2015 and enter into force by 2020. The UN community worked to generate momentum toward the impending deadline through the UN Climate Summit 2014, held in New York, and the 20th session of the COP to the UNFCC, held in Lima, Peru. The COP20 reached conclusions on some core elements of the agreement and established ground rules for States’ individual commitments. [UNFCC Press Release] They began to turn the tide after previous years had yielded insufficient progress in the opinion of several non-governmental organizations and many of the poorest nations.
The 15th session, held in Copenhagen in 2009, was widely viewed as a failure due to a last minute deal brokered by China, United States, Brazil, India, and South Africa that eliminated references to the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit and the goal of 80% emission reduction and contained no concrete commitments. [The Guardian: Copenhagen 2009] Lumumba Di-Aping, chief negotiator for the G77 group of 130 developing countries condemned the lack of “ambition” demonstrated by leaders of the developed world. [The Guardian: Copenhagen 2009] 2013’s Warsaw session saw nearly 800 members of non-governmental organizations walk out in protest of the lack of progress achieved during the 19th session. Additionally, in an unprecedented move, 133 of the world’s poorest nations walked out during talks concerning a new international mechanism for loss and damage associated with climate change impacts. [IJRC]
Experts and World Leaders Weigh In
The response from world leaders has been overwhelmingly positive, with both developed and developing nations hailing it as a victory. [Earth Justice Press Release] Giza Gaspar Martins, the chair of the group of 48 poorest countries in the negotiations, called it “the best outcome we could have hoped for.” [Earth Justice Press Release] On the other hand, developed nations prided themselves and their cohorts on the ambition and compromises of the agreement, French President Francois Hollande calling it “a major leap for mankind.” [The Guardian: World Leaders]
While non-governmental experts welcomed the agreement, they were more reserved in their praise, warning that the goals are promising but may be insufficient without strict timelines and enforcement strategies. [The Guardian: Experts] They also warn that with only the current 1 degree Celsius of change from the preindustrial era, the world has already experienced droughts, flooding, and glacier melting and, thus, even moderate increase from here will worsen such situations. [The Guardian: Experts]
For more information on economic, social, and cultural rights, including those of indigenous peoples and environmental rights, or prior coverage of the 19th and 20th COP sessions and the 2014 UN Climate Summit, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.