ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Emperor’s New (Warm Weather) Clothes?

On Saturday, a new international treaty surplanting the expired Kyoto Protocol was finally reached by 195 nations. For business contracting and numerous, if not all, aspects of life now and in the future, the global climate will be key. 

The main aim of the agreement is to keep temperature rise “well below” 2° C.  The nations will additionally “pursue efforts” to limit the temperature increase to 1.5° C. Thousands of scientists have for a long time reiterated the belief that temperatures rising above 2° Celsius could be devastating, so the aspirational goal of 1.5° C is, of course, a positive sign that national leaders may finally be realizing the dire straits of the planet’s climate situation.

So, this is good news, right? To some extent, yes. “The Paris Agreement for the first time brings all nations into a common ClimateChangecause based on their historic, current and future responsibilities.” However, current national commitments still do not go far enough. As they currently stand, we are headed towards a warming of more than 3° C; much higher than the scientifically advisable goal. The national pledges must be increased over time.  Starting in 2018, each country will have to submit new plans every five years to reach the 1.5/2° goal by 2100. The thought is that even though current coals do not suffice to keep climate warming to the agreed-upon limits, they will over time, starting soon.

History shows, though, that many nations have so far neither been ready nor politically able to make effective greenhouse gas reduction commitments. Previous aspirational goals have not been realized by the great majority of nations, although some not only met, but exceeded their commitments. It’s tempting to note that “time will tell if the situation changes this time,” but we simply don’t have much time to turn around the problem before it is too late for many regions, species and peoples around the world. For example, a temperature increase of 2° C will still be very problematic for low-lying nations such as many small island states, who seem to have been almost entirely forgotten about by many in this context. That, however, was considered one of the “prices” to be paid for reaching the deal. (A true contractual-like bargaining strategy.) Human rights are only mentioned in the preamble to the Agreement and not in the Agreement itself.

Nation themselves will determine their “intended nationally determined contributions,” which are not directly legally binding under notions of hard law as they are not mandatory with top-down enforcement if the nations fail to do so.  Among other factors, the word "contribution" and not, for example, "commitments" demonstrate the legal cautiousness of the agreement.  Nations must, of course, still strive to reach their goals under the UNFCCC and the notion of pacta sunt servanda, but these are not worded in a manner that gives them a firm, legally binding effect. The only directly legally binding parts of the Agreement are some procedural aspects such as the review procedures.

Of course, the reason why the Agreement was adopted by so many parties was precisely that no legal requirements were imposed on nations. Some, such as the United States, would not have accepted this. A senior Obama administration official notes that the Agreement "does not require submission to the Senate because of the way it is structured and because the pieces that are binding are already part of existing agreements.” A legally smart and pragmatic maneuver. But it still remains to be seen whether the United States and other nations act – and act quickly enough - to prevent the problem escalating in spite of good intentions.  I may be one of the few in this context, but I’m still skeptical. The intended time frames still seem too long to me and the actual promised action too meager. I fear that these are simply the “Emperor’s New Clothes,” celebrated so much, perhaps, because of so many years of no action.

Nonetheless, it is certainly remarkable and a very good sign that the world community finally agreed on the dangers posed by climate change and thus a 2° C limit.  That's a good start.  In the words of Miguel Arias Cañete, the European Union’s commissioner for energy and climate action, “[t]oday, we celebrate, [t]omorrow, we have to act. This is what the world expects of us.” But if we have simply turned a corner back to where we came from, namely hoping that sufficient action will be taken soon and pointing out that the world expects that, we might have celebrated a bit too early. I hope I am wrong. Climate change is like a cancer: horrible, always inconvenient, and tough to deal with at many levels. But the longer one waits in tackling it, the worse it will get.

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