The Paris Agreement: Criticisms and Opportunities of a New and Urgent Treaty

unacto11.jpgThe following article is written by Denea Bascombe, one of our new UNAC-Vancouver website writers.


With the Kyoto Protocol reaching its 10-year anniversary, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference. The Conference of the Parties, better known as COP 21, drew the attention of a range of interest groups including entrepreneurs, governments, indigenous activists, non-governmental organizations, students, scientists, and academics. With the relative success of the Kyoto Protocol, people around the world have followed and engaged with    the proceedings of COP21 with some hope, even with skeptics of the effectiveness of international treaties, such as Friends of the Earth International, commenting that “the Paris Agreement fails to deliver climate justice”. However, one caveat was in the the well-known fact that the Kyoto Protocol had a much smaller, more manageable agenda: namely, reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Kyoto Protocol had the easy job of acknowledging the existence of climate change, admitting the role of man in carbon dioxide emissions, and taking the first step in seeing reductions of emissions. COP21, on the other hand, needed to build on this.

Despite this, at least in its early stages, the Paris Agreement appears to be keeping up its determination, shown also by its 178 signatories . It also urges Parties to the UNFCCC to move quickly, as it is only open for ratification until April 21, 2017. That leaves less than one year until the Agreement enters in to force, should it meet the ratification requirement of at least 55 Parties accounting for a minimum total of 55 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions.
The Paris Agreement states: “Parties to the UNFCCC reached a historic agreement to combat climate change and to accelerate and intensify the actions and investments needed for a sustainable low carbon future”. On the date of June 30th, 2016, only 19 out of 197 Parties have ratified the Agreement, accounting for only 0.18% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
At the six-month mark since the Agreement was put forward, this seems like a slow progression of an Agreement that stressed acceleration. This is a lot for Parties to the UNFCCC to sign on to.

Understanding the difference in timelines between the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement provides some evidence for the accelerated nature of the Paris Agreement.  Some prominent criticisms of the Paris Agreement stress the conditions of ratification and emission reduction targets. Christopher Rhodes highlights that although each country that has ratified the Agreement is required to set a target for emissions reduction, no amount is made compulsory. He furthers this by illustrating how the Kyoto Protocol imposed penalties, should a target not be met, but that this measure is not replicated in the Paris Agreement.

Additionally, Rhodes outlines two more points of criticism of the Paris Agreement: the critical temperature level, and the allocation of funding to vulnerable or developing countries. Currently, the official target is below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, but includes a “background target” of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This leaves countries with a gap, rather than a specific target, and creates the question of whether 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is actually enough to reach the goal of a sustainable low-carbon future. Friends of the Earth International, the self-proclaimed world’s largest grassroots environmental network, states that “without compensation for irreparable damage, the most vulnerable countries will be left to pick up the pieces and foot the bill for a crisis they didn’t create”. These are two very real concerns that do not yet have explicit solutions.

Yet, other works find optimism within the challenges associated with COP21. Jan-Erik Lane writes that Asian governments have signed on to the Paris Agreement, accepting the responsibility of reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the highest-emitting and fastest-growing region in the world. Lane does not deny that challenges are large and broad, and refers to theories of public policy to illustrate that many different scenarios and outcomes could play out .
“It is no exaggeration to say that the governments, the business community, and the third sector in Asian countries have no time to lose in developing national policies according to the decentralised implementation approach laid down in the COP21 agreement”. Lane stresses the necessity of effective planning and constant evaluation of Asian governments on their methods to reduce greenhouse gases to the 40% drop by 2030 . However, Lane also highlights that Asian environments will face overall degradation, and will experience unique effects of climate change, including “more deforestation and desertification, less water for humans and hydro power, and more land will be lost as a result of the rise in sea level”.

The fragility of Asian ecology will have disastrous effects on social systems and economy, and Lane illustrates the need for, and possibility of, innovative policy objectives that will change the way Asian economies operate to make room for decreased greenhouse gas emissions. Even the optimistic view of the Paris Agreement cannot underestimate the challenges that will be faced in the road to realizing a warming limit of 1.5-2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

However, it is difficult to write off the evident willingness from a massive range of governments and interest groups to reduce emissions and make room for a sustainable, low-carbon future which all economies and ecologies can rely upon. Criticisms along the way provide means for engagement, accountability, and public pressure on governments to realize this positive change. In essence, there is no other option for societies, especially the most vulnerable, to find ways to reach the goal. The 2017 closing date for ratification and the 2018 cap on further greenhouse gas emissions show that the Paris Agreement is a firm, urgent, and novel treaty that tests the ability of societies to work domestically, work internationally, and work quickly.


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