International Climate Change

Posted on: 18 December 2015

The Paris Agreement: Symbolism rather than historical significance

Posted by: Frances Lawson

The homepage of the UNFCCC website, like most of the post-COP21 publicity, proclaims the Paris Agreement to be “historic”. It adds, as a sub-heading, that 195 countries have “set a path to keep temperature rises well below 2 degrees Celsius”.

One of the most important tasks post-COP21 is to separate the spin from the substance, to distinguish the Agreement’s political significance from its legal import. To the ministers and government representatives who worked quite literally through the night in Paris to secure its universal approval, the Agreement is a sizeable achievement; it is, indeed, the first time that the entire international community of States has pledged to undertake actions to address the global phenomenon of climate change. For the French Government, the Agreement is an immense relief, the spectre of a humiliating ‘Copenhagen-style’ failure having been successfully defeated.

The Agreement’s value is not only political; by aiming to keep global temperature increase “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, and for a peaking of emissions as soon as possible, the Agreement sends out important messages of intent to investors, energy companies and other actors. “The fossil fuel era is dead” some have already started to claim. This may be stating it too highly, but the Paris Agreement does clearly indicate that the global community’s general direction of travel is away from highly polluting energy sources and activities and towards cleaner, low-carbon resources.

Legally, however, the Agreement is a highly imperfect creature, even in the context of the particularities of international law. The Agreement’s multiple flaws as a legal instrument will be the subject of detailed analysis in the posts that follow. For now, however, it suffices to say that it does not “set a path to keep temperature rises well below 2 degrees Celsius”. It does set a path, but not one that in itself will deliver the temperature goal, or the overarching objective of the Convention. Universal participation in the most politically charged international agreement comes at a cost in terms of legal efficacy.

The full text of the final Agreement can be found here 

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