On Thursday, September 14, 2018, the Environmental Law Program’s Distinguished Scholar in Residence, Dr. Christina Voigt presented on the Paris Agreement to an audience full of students, community, scholars, and faculty. As a professor at the University of Oslo, Department of Public and International Law, as Chair of the Climate Change Specialist Group of the IUCN World Commission on Environmental Law, Professor Voigt shared her firsthand insight on the Paris Agreement’s design, operation, and goals.
What is the Paris Agreement? The Paris Agreement is a legally-binding international treaty that obligates 179 member states. Collectively, these states agreed upon a mechanism for addressing Climate Change. As of today, there are 180 parties, including the European Union as a regional organization, a remarkable “almost universal” agreement. While this treaty is most notably a legally binding document, there are also a number of non-binding provisions as well. By the end of this century, the Paris Agreement aims for carbon neutrality. This means that every emission of carbon that humans are responsible for must be balanced by the removal of equivalent carbon from the atmosphere.
The design of the Paris Agreement captures collective will to combat climate change, while balancing every country’s own sovereign will. Each member state must develop a national plan, a called a “Nationally Determined Contribution” or NDC, every five years. The NDC not only includes implementation mechanisms but also sets standards of progress for every subsequent NDC. Every two years, the state reports on implementation progress prior to issuing another NDC. All of these NDCs are posted online in an effort to promote transparency, which is an integral part of the Agreement. Every five years, the parties gather for a “Global Stocktake” to disseminate progress and to prepare for the upcoming NDC.
Where are we now? Though the U.S. announced withdrawal, its seeming adherence to the “withdrawal process” set out by the Agreement does not make withdrawal official until November 4, 2020. This means that the U.S. is still entitled to participate in negotiations, and obligates the U.S. to adhere to the Agreement. The bilateral partnership between China and the U.S. throughout the Agreement was a pivotal role for the collective member states. As such, the United States’ withdrawal also had a collateral effect on the larger member states.
What is next? Dr. Voigt also pointed out that while International Climate Negotiations take place each year, every decision is made based on consensus, and the Agreement is not self-executing. Rather, the Agreement requires needs implementation, compliance, and further negotiation. Each country has the flexibility to determine finer details. This year, specific rules will be adopted in order to operationalize the Paris Agreement – under the “Paris Agreement Work Program.” A committee dedicated to compliance will develop and adopt rules, modalities and operating procedures this year.
Professor Voigt highlighted a message that the Paris Agreement has spread to the corporate world as an indicator of countries’ commitment to tackling Climate Change. While countries have demonstrated their willingness to make voluntary commitments, their willingness to do so “must still be translated to” implementation. Previously a “mere diligence obligation,” each party’s NDC must now reflect reflect “its highest possible ambition.” Concluding her well received presentation, Dr. Voigt stressed that for additional academic scholarship looking at the scope of each country’s “highest possible ambition” in relation to the Paris Agreement would be welcomed.
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