The COP21 talks held in Paris last week saw a successful denouement with an international accord formally agreed by the 195 nations present. The Paris agreement, to give it its official title, is the result of a tireless effort by the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius to corral the many thousands of delegates in the right direction.
The accord saw governments agree to aim to keep global temperature rises below 2°C; to make pledges to curb their emissions; and to provide finance for developing countries. Also included within the agreement was a review mechanism for all parties to take stock every five years as well as a long-term global goal for net-zero emissions.
But with legitimate concerns over country pledges not being legally binding, how far can we be sure that this is a step in the right direction?
One only needs to revisit the breakdown of the 2009 Copenhagen talks to realise what a genuinely significant achievement 2015’s agreement is. After 20 years of stuttering talks, there was no plan B if Paris failed. With every one of the 195 countries having to be on-board, this was no easy task for Fabius.
The concern that although the overall Paris agreement is legally binding, its details are not, is a legitimate one. This could be a major stumbling block, as countries could potentially shirk their commitments without reproach or repercussion. It is particularly an issue when you consider that the pledges made for the next five years, in the form of INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions), will only limit temperatures by 2.7°C rather than by the intended 2°C.
So why are these agreements not legally binding? Because a focus on legally enforceable agreements was the reason the 2009 Copenhagen talks failed. Countries such as Saudi Arabia have much to lose from this agreement and the absence of their signature would scupper the talks. However, by keeping everyone on the same page, the agreement forces each country to review its energy policies and in a completely transparent and comprehensive manner. This offers a more realistic chance to create a multilateral point of action to solving climate change.
Yes, there are many legitimate concerns regarding the agreement but climate change is a global issue and it needs a global response. There is much more to do but at least now, negotiators have a roadmap and a timeline with which they can begin to work with and progress. It is not an unqualified success nor is it a missed open goal, but it is a step in the right direction.