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COP21 Paris Agreement: A Partial But Important Victory For SIDS And The World But Just The Beginning

Alicia Nicholls
COP21 Paris Agreement: A Partial But Important Victory For SIDS And The World But Just The Beginning

BRIGDETOWN, Barbados -- Some two decades in the making, delegates from 196 countries around the world made history today by voting to adopt the Paris Agreement to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an internationally binding framework for the post-2015 global climate agenda.

Getting ten people in a room to agree on something is a challenge in itself, far less getting delegates from almost 200 countries with different interests, perspectives and levels of development to agree on an international strategy for tackling climate change. Going into the COP21 there was broad international consensus on the closing window for reversing the deadly course towards unsustainable high levels of global temperature increase and general recognition that while small island developing states (SIDS) contributed little to the problem of climate change, they are the ones which are already suffering the most devastating effects of climate change. However, drilling down into the key issues there were thorny areas of divergence which led to several compromises in the final text.

My personal view, which I will argue in this article, is that while the Paris Agreement is by no means perfect, the fact that parties were able to actually achieve an agreement and its inclusion of many of the concerns which SIDS have advocated for even in compromise form in some cases, makes it a partial but important  first step for tackling what has been recognised as one of the greatest threats to our sustainable future.

Long Term Temperature Increase Target Of 1.5 Degrees Celsius

A major victory and negotiating point for SIDS through its campaign “1.5 to stay alive” was for commitment by parties to hold the increase in global average temperature to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In support of its negotiating position, SIDS relied on the Structured Expert Dialogue on the 2013-2015 Review of the long term global temperature goal which argued that the global consensus of limiting the increase in average global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius was inadequate and would threaten the sustainability of both SIDS and low-lying coastal States. This was a sticking point in the negotiations. In the end at article 2(1)(a) the Paris Agreement parties agreed to a compromise position which aims to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. While this is not entirely what SIDS were hoping for it is a lot more ambitious than what most had expected.

Recognition of Loss and Damage

Another major issue for SIDS was for the agreement to establish an international mechanism to address loss and damage which is treated separately from adaptation. They relied again on the findings of the Structured Expert Dialogue on the 2013-2015 Review which showed that even in low emission scenarios SIDS will still experience substantial loss and damage. As such they argued for recognition by industrialised States of liability and compensation. The worst greenhouse gas emitters US, China and the EU countries were absolutely against any form of compensation or liability.

Article 8 of the Paris Agreement is a mixed victory for SIDS in that parties recognize the importance of “averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change”. The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, established at COP19 in 2013, will be one of the mechanisms for facilitation and cooperation and may be enhanced or strengthened as determined by the Parties represents a compromise on the issue of loss and damage. However, in paragraph 52 of the preamble it includes that Article 8 “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation”. This is likely a compromise for those countries which opposed inclusion of any liability or compensation. While this is a weakness, it is likely this will not be the end of this issue and that SIDS will continue to push for this in the reviews.

Climate Finance

Even though developed States pledged to mobilise USD 100 billion dollars a year in financing for climate change, SIDS have continuously argued about the limited financial resources which have actually been made available to assist in their mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change. In Article 9, developed country Parties agreed to scale up efforts to provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation and should continue to take the lead in mobilizing climate finance from a wide variety of sources, instruments and channels. Other Parties are encouraged to provide or continue to provide such support voluntarily. Developed countries are to report on support on a biennial basis. Other Parties  are to do so voluntarily. The Financial Mechanism of the Convention is to serve as the financial mechanism for the Paris Agreement.

In paragraph 115 of the preamble, developed country Parties are to scale up their level of financial support with a goal of USD 100 billion annually by 2020 for mitigation and adaptation. Interestingly, this bit about the USD100 billion is included in the preamble to the Agreement and not as a binding provision within the text itself which has an impact on its enforceability. A stronger more robust provision would have been desired.

Technology Transfer And Capacity-Building Support

SIDS were insistent on the inclusion of adequate provisions for adaptation to assist them in their adaptation to climate change, including provisions on technology transfer and capacity-building support. Technology transfer is referenced both in the preamble and the actual text of the Paris Agreement. Article 10 of the Agreement requires parties to strengthen cooperative action on technology development and transfer. A Technology Mechanism and Technology Framework have been established under the Agreement to facilitate this, although the text does not detail how this technology transfer is to occur. Support, including financial support, is to be provided to developing country Parties for implementation. Article 11 of the Agreement itself does not speak to how capacity building is to take place but leaves it up the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement to consider and adopt a decision on the initial institutional arrangements for capacity-building at its first session. It will be up to SIDS to keep pushing for further support for technology transfer and capacity-building support.

Voluntary Greenhouse Gas Emission Reductions

Though the parties recognise in the preamble that deep reductions in global emissions will be required in order to achieve the ultimate objective of the Convention and Article 4(4) of the main text requires developed country Parties to continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets, generally speaking the provisions on greenhouse gas emission reductions are voluntary, vague and crafted mostly in best endeavour language and not in the robust language climate activists and SIDS were hoping for.

Under Article 4(1) parties are to aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions “as soon as possible”. Each Party is to prepare, communicate and maintain successive nationally determined contributions that it intends to achieve (Article 4(2)), with the further conditions that there should be progression in each of its contributions and that they should reflect its highest possible ambition. These are to take into consideration each country’s national circumstances and on the principle of differentiated responsibilities.

A mechanism to contribute to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and support sustainable development has been established under the authority and guidance of the Conference of the Parties. However, it is unclear how this is to work. One positive point though is that a share of the proceeds from activities under the mechanism are to be used to cover administrative expenses and to assist developing country parties that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change to meet the costs of adaptation. Again, however, the specifics on how this will be done will have to be subsequently fleshed out.

Stocktaking/Five Year Reviews

SIDS were adamant that any agreement should include provisions for five-year review cycles of greenhouse gas emissions targets to assess the collective progress towards achieving the long term goal of a 1.5 degrees Celsius target with the first review to take place before 2020. The Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement agreed to five year reviews after 2023, but with inclusion of “unless otherwise decided”. Additionally, unlike the “before 2020” recommendation made, the parties agreed to a first global stocktake in 2023. Here again the Paris Agreement features a compromise but is a major win for small states as it allows for periodic reviews so adjustments can be made to ensure the goal of 1.5 degrees is reached.

Legally Binding

Much ado has been made about whether it would be a legally binding Agreement. This discussion was quite moot as Article 2(1)(a) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties defines a treaty as “an international agreement concluded between States in written form and governed by international law, whether embodied in a single instrument or in two or more related instruments and whatever its particular designation”, while Article 26 further provides that “every treaty in force is binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith”. For domestic ratification reasons, the US position however is that it is not a treaty. Because of the concept of separation of powers, a treaty would require Congressional approval which, given the current composition of the US Congress and the strong oil and coal lobbies, is unlikely to receive congressional approval.


Article 13 of the Paris Agreement establishes an “enhanced transparency framework for action and support with built-in flexibility which takes into account Parties’ different capacities”. The Transparency Framework established under the Agreement is to build on the transparency arrangements already established under the UNFCCC Convention and there is to be frameworks for transparency to action and transparency of support.Parties are to regularly provide information a national inventory report of anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases and information necessary to track progress made in implementing and achieving their nationally determined contribution under Article 4. However, it does not state how often is “regularly”. There are also reporting obligations in regards to financing and technology provided and received.

The technical expert review provided for under Article 13 is to consist of a consideration of the Party’s support (as relevant), its implementation and achievement of its nationally determined contribution, identification of areas of improvement for the Party, and include a review of the consistency of the information with the modalities, procedures and guidelines referred to in paragraph 13 of the Article. The review is to pay particular attention to the respective national capabilities and circumstances of developing country Parties.

Compliance And Enforcement

The key issue is not whether it is a legally binding agreement but its enforcement of compliance. The greatest weakness of the Agreement is that many of its major provisions are drafted in hortatory ‘best endeavour” language as well as its enforceability and policing given its weak compliance mechanism. Article 14 establishes an expert-committee based mechanism to facilitate implementation of the agreement and compliance with its provisions. However, the fact that it is to be facilitative and “non-punitive” means it is not envisaged to be an enforcement mechanism which actually has “teeth” and would probably be little more than a “name and shame” mechanism. The actual modalities and procedures of this committee are to be decided by the Conference of the Parties meeting as the Parties to the Paris Agreement when they have their first session.

Just The Beginning

In light of the many compromises and vague language in many of provisions, the Agreement is by no means a perfect one and aspirational rather than binding in many of its key provisions. It is, however, a lot better than what it would have been had it not been for the strong defence by SIDS, through the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), of their interests. In light of previous failures and two decades of often challenging climate change negotiations, the fact that we finally have an agreement, which though not perfect, balances interests in a way that is fair and incorporates most of SIDS concerns, is an important victory for SIDS and the world. It recognises the principle of differentiated responsibility and makes some mention of the special vulnerability of SIDS in various provisions. Another positive aspect is that Article 27 provides that no reservations may be made to the Agreement.

The Paris Agreement represents a turning point towards a new post-2015 global plan for climate change adaptation and mitigation. The real test will be in its ratification and implementation. Pursuant to Article 21, at least 55 Parties to the Convention accounting in total for at least an estimated 55 percent of the total global greenhouse gas emissions, have to ratify the Agreement for it to come into force. The US will be a critical case to watch as if it is seen as a Treaty, which it indeed is, Congressional approval will be needed and such approval appears unlikely. No one wants a repeat of the Kyoto debacle.

There is scepticism about whether the “1.5 degrees Celsius” target can actually be reached. Indeed, the INDC Synthesis report released by the UNFCCC Secretariat and which captured the overall impact of national climate plans covering 146 countries as of 1 October 2015, showed that the current INDCs have the capability of limiting the forecast temperature rise to only around 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100, which still does not support the 2 or 1.5 targets. The review mechanism provides the opportunity to review national climate plans to bring them into this target. SIDS will need to continue their advocacy and use the review mechanisms provided for under the Agreement to continue to hold major emitters to account.

While it is easy to bask in the euphoria of this historic agreement, the world cannot take this moment for granted by resting on its laurels. Now the real work on a low carbon economy begins. --

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. During her professional career, she has delivered timely, high quality and innovative research and consultancy solutions to public and private sector clients, private individuals, international organisations and NGOs. --