Why We Need a New, Enforceable International Climate Change Agreement

(Or Risk Sleepwalking into Serious Trouble)

By Linda Roland Danil

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has published a special report on the impact of climate change which warns that the world is wildly off track from the target of keeping the rise in global temperature under control. In this guest article, Dr Linda Roland Danil argues that a new international agreement is needed to prevent us from sleepwalking into serious trouble.

In 2015, 196 Parties came together and agreed to the Paris Agreement, under which they pledged to limit global warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. But the problem is that the Paris Agreement does not contain quantified, legally-binding obligations for the reduction of emissions. It also has no enforcement mechanism, such as an international tribunal. Instead, countries prepare their own national emissions targets — so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDC’s — and report to each other on how well they are doing to implement their targets.

The Paris Agreement was undoubtedly an achievement in the realm of international climate negotiations, and although the Trump administration has notoriously recently pledged to withdraw from the Agreement, a withdrawal which cannot take effect until late 2020. 196 Parties, at different stages of economic development, and within a conflicting political context, all agreed on the importance of tackling the threat of anthropogenic global warming.

However, the Paris Agreement’s targets are simply not being met, with the national pledges by the signatory Parties having recently been argued to bring about only a third of the reduction of emissions by 2030 that is required.

As has been argued here, if the Paris Agreement targets are to be actually met, governments need to unequivocally act by 2035. After that date, humanity could cross a point of no return and limiting global warming to below 2°C in 2100 would be extremely difficult. To prevent this, the global use of renewable energy would have to increase by 2% each year before then. If humanity wanted to commit to limit global warming to 1.5°C by 2100, then renewables would need to increase 5% per year before the year 2027.

The scope of such undertakings would be immense. To put it into perspective — from the late 1990s to 2017, the percentage of energy from renewables only grew a total of 3.6%. The development of negative emissions technology to reduce carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere could buy us a few years — but as it stands, such technology is in its infancy, and the deadlines above are approaching soon.

What is required is resolute and far-reaching government intervention in energy markets in the next few years, particularly in the largest polluting countries. The decarbonization of the global economy needs, amongst other things, the immediate setting of a steadily rising price on carbon, the large-scale deployment of renewable energy, and the reform of forestry and agricultural policies that lead to massive sequestration of CO2.

However, as is argued here, the countries of the Paris Agreement did not negotiate decarbonization per se — they negotiated much more modest steps through INDCs, which have to be updated every five years. Further, INDCs are down to the discretion of individual countries, which decide how, and how much they can contribute to meeting the goal of an overall climate change reduction to below 1.5°C or 2°C, in accordance to the principle of common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities, which take into account different national circumstances.

Non-compliance mechanisms, insofar as they exist, operate in a non-judicial and consultative manner, reflecting States’ preference to ‘facilitate’ compliance rather than to stigmatize violations or impose sanctions. Thus, although the Paris Agreement is a treaty which is theoretically binding as a matter of international law, it contains few mandatory provisions. This would be the appropriate approach to take if the threats posed by global warming were not so severe and imminent — but that is simply not the case.

In an ideal world, a new agreement taking the form of hard law with binding mitigation targets would be formulated (which, to its credit, the EU advocated for the Paris Agreement), with the same 196 Parties on board. Following the argument made by Bolivia, an International Climate Justice Tribunal, with a mandate to penalize countries for the lack of compliance, would also be established. More broadly, a concerted, global and united effort to move away from the present global economic system, which continues to heavily rely on fossil fuels to drive economic growth in the short to medium term — needs to theorized and implemented immediately. As Raymond Clémençon of the Global Studies Department at the University of California puts it, “there is no attempt to address the inconsistencies between international climate and international trade liberalization objectives which countries continue to pursue side-by-side with no coordination.”

The ‘Global North’ — and mainly, the United States and the European Union — which is historically responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions, should take the lead here and ensure that obligations and responsibilities reflect the extent to which the State in question has historically contributed to greenhouse gas emissions, and the level of its economic development.

Through globalization, production has also been offshored to various parts of the globe, meaning that developed countries also have to take into account the manufacturing bases that have been migrated elsewhere and their concomitant greenhouse gas emissions. As William E Rees, Emeritus Professor at the University of British Columbia, argues, “Globalization and trade have enabled too many countries to overshoot their capacities and run ‘ecological deficits' with other nations."

A new, enforceable climate change agreement should be put on the table because anthropogenic global warming is one of the most major threats facing the planet today. The five warmest years on record have taken place since 2010. Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have decreased in mass, with Greenland having lost an average of 281 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2016. Antarctica, on the other hand, lost about 119 billion tons during the same time period. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the acidity of surface ocean waters has increased by about 30%.

Further, we are in the midst of a sixth-mass extinction — a recent article has argued that a ‘biological annihilation’ is occurring on Earth due to, amongst other things, habitat loss, over-exploitation of resources, pollution, toxification of the environment such as through pesticides, and in recent times, through climate disruption, as well as through the interaction of these factors — leading to catastrophic declines in both the number and sizes of populations of both common and rare vertebrate species.

On the trajectory we are on, UN officials have concluded that current INDCs would lead to a 2.7°C rise in temperature by the end of this century. Elsewhere, a recent article has presented an even bleaker picture, and argued that global warming’s worst-case projections of temperatures rising by nearly 5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century look increasingly likely. If that were to occur, then this map visualizes what the world could indeed look like, specifically if the world was 4°C warmer. For example, most of Africa will be turned into uninhabitable desert. Bangladesh will be largely abandoned, as well as south India, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Polynesia will have vanished beneath the sea.

We already live in a world that is being stripped of biodiversity, sees many of its ecosystems threatened, and in which climate change is leaving palpable effects on the planet. If we continue on the same path, the future only holds further, magnified negative effects. But it is not too late to do something about it.

Dr Linda Roland Danil completed her PhD studies in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds in 2015. Prior to that, she obtained an LLB Law (Hons) from the University of Bristol (2009) and an MA in Gender Studies (Research) from the University of Leeds (2010). She has since published sole-authored articles in Law and Critique; Law, Culture and the Humanities; and Critical Studies on Security, as well as acted as guest editor for an Interventions special issue for Critical Studies on Security. She presently lives and works in London.


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© World Ocean Observatory 2019