On December 12, 2015, 195 nations became parties to the Paris Agreement, recognizing the need for an effective and aggressive response to the urgent threat of climate change on the basis of the best available scientific knowledge. The Paris Agreement falls within the framework of, but expands upon, the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. For people hopeful for global action in response to climate change and in limitation of carbon emissions, the Agreement marks a hopeful moment. Nations as diverse and typically disagreeable as Iran, China, Russia and India all became parties to the Agreement. For those hopeful people, however, the good news in the Agreement may be limited. The Agreement includes very little in the way of firm commitments by any parties and no real and robust enforcement mechanism.
The Kyoto Protocol established two “commitment periods.” The first, set forth in the Protocol itself, ran from 2008 to 2012 establishing greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets for certain participants. The second period, established by the so-called Doha Amendment to the Protocol, runs through 2020. Under the Doha Amendment, 37 nations committed to establishing additional binding greenhouse gas emission target limits. (Seven of the 37 have so far actually adopted such limits.) The Paris Agreement is intended to provide a framework for addressing climate change issues after the expiration of the second commitment period.
The substance of the Paris Agreement, set forth in Article 4, provides that, “in order to achieve the long-term temperature goals [of holding the increase of global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperate increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels]”, parties “aim” to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible. Article 4 requires each party to prepare, communicate and maintain successive nationally determined contributions to the goal that it intends to achieve. Supposedly, each parties’ successive national determined contribution will represent a progression beyond the parties’ then current national determined contribution and reflect its highest possible ambition. However, Article 4 includes no objective standards by which the world or other parties may judge the contributions proposed by each party.
The Agreement divides the parties into “developed country parties” and “developing country” parties. The Agreement does not define which counties are developed and which countries are developing. The Agreement will not become completely effective until 2020, so the parties will presumably hammer out that definition by that time. They will probably begin by looking at the analogous division established by the United Nations framework convention on climate change adopted in 1992. That framework divided the world into two parts, countries that had “historical responsibility” for increased atmospheric carbon levels and those that did not. Counties with historical responsibility were listed in Annex 1 of the framework. Presumably, the parties to the Paris Agreement will start with the proposition that the Annex 1 countries in the framework will be treated as developed country parties to the Paris Agreement. (The Annex 1 countries are the countries to whom the “first commitment period” target reduction limits applied.)
Developed country parties shall continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets. Developing country parties should continue enhancing their mitigation efforts and are encouraged to move over time toward economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets in the light of different national circumstances. Perhaps the main actual commitment parties to the Agreement made is in Article 9, which provides that developed country parties shall provide financial resources to assist developing country parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation in continuation of their existing obligations under the convention. Article 9 further provides that developed country parties shall every other year communicate quantitative and qualitative information including projected levels of public financial resources to be provided to developing country parties.
This appears to commit the United States to providing at least some level of financial support to developing countries to assist them in developing cleaner energy technologies.
The Agreement provides that it shall “enter into force,” or become effective, on the thirtieth day after the date on which at least 55 parties to the Agreement Convention accounting in total for at least an estimated 55 percent of the total global greenhouse gas emissions have fully ratified the Agreement.
We can expect that the United States will take the position that its currently proposed clean power plan is part (perhaps a large part) of the United States’ Article 4 “nationally determined contribution” that it intends to achieve. Of course, the future status of the clean power plan is unclear both with respect to judicial challenges and the impact that political changes in the U.S. can have upon the plan’s implementation. The source of the funds that the U.S. appears to have committed to provide developing country parties has not yet been specified.
U.S. residents can probably assume that energy costs, at least in the short term, will increase as a result of the clean power plan and the U.S.’ commitments in the Paris Agreement. Interested people must also acknowledge, however, that Paris Agreement represents the first time that such a large portion of the world’s governments have affirmatively and explicitly recognized the existence of climate change as a risk to their countries.