National Governments Opt for Nonbinding Climate Agreement in Paris

Published January 28, 2016

The United Nations’ 21st Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21), held in Paris, France from November 30 through December 12, ultimately failed to accomplish the organizers’ goal of producing “a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C,” as stated on the official COP21 website.

Negotiators did produce an agreement that was historic in one way: For the first time ever, developing countries joined developed nations in agreeing to monitor and cut—or at least slow and cap at some point in the future—their greenhouse gas emissions.

Instead of attempting to prevent an estimated rise of global temperature by a maximum of 2°C, at the behest of large environmental lobbying organizations and some scientists, the negotiators set more stringent global temperature targets. These were stated in the document as “[h]old[ing] 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.”

The agreement also set a long-term goal of reducing global carbon emissions to “net zero emissions” during the second half of the current century, and it establishes a mechanism for monitoring and reporting individual countries’ successes in meeting their self-imposed targets.

Aspirational Agreement

Analysts have characterized the Paris agreement as ultimately an aspirational document, not a binding treaty. Secretary of State John Kerry admitted as much, stating on Fox News Sunday, “[The Paris agreement] doesn’t have mandatory targets for reduction, and it doesn’t have an enforcement, compliance mechanism.”

Dennis Clare, a negotiator for the Federated States of Micronesia told The Huffington Post, “We’ve agreed to what we ought to be doing, but no one has agreed to go do it.”

No Enforcement Mechanism

Although each of the 184 nations provided individual benchmarks and timetables for reducing or capping carbon dioxide emissions, there is no legally binding requirement to meet those targets. Unless an individual country adopts domestic legislation enacting into law the commitments it made in Paris, the agreement cannot be enforced against a country either in international courts or within an individual country’s domestic legal system.

In the agreement, developed countries once again supported providing $100 billion to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which was created to compensate developing countries for the damage allegedly done to them by the developed world’s historic greenhouse gas emissions and to allow them to adapt to future changes to the climate. As with the carbon dioxide emissions target, nations are not legally bound to fund GCF.

“This is a tempest in a teapot, if there ever was one,” said economist John C. Goodman, president of the Goodman Institute for Public Policy Research. “There are no binding goals, no binding commitments, and no penalties for failure to perform as promised.

“This was a feel-good agreement,” Goodman said.

Commitments Miss Target

According to a post-Paris analysis on the U.N. Environment Programme’s website and a pre-conference report issued by the United Nations prior to COP-21, even if all the parties to the agreement meet their promised emissions targets, the plans submitted by the 184 nations involved will result in less than half the greenhouse gas cuts required to halt temperatures at an upper limit of 2°C.

James Hansen, former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, often referred to as the “father of climate change,” was scathing in his assessment of the agreement. He told The Guardian, “It’s a fraud really, a fake. … There’s no action, just promises.”

Some experts, such as Bonner Cohen, senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research, see the Paris agreement as having a potentially significant impact on policy despite its nonbinding nature.

“The Paris agreement is non-binding and lacks an enforcement mechanism, but this is exactly what the White House wants,” said Cohen. “It enables Obama to claim that the climate pact is an ‘agreement’ and not a ‘treaty’ requiring Senate approval by an unattainable two-thirds vote.

“The U.S. delegation in Paris insisted on replacing the word ‘shall,’ which is binding, with ‘should,’ which is non-binding, when referring to [greenhouse gas] emissions countries are pledging to reduce,” Cohen said. “With the Senate circumvented, count on the White House to use our ‘commitments’ made in Paris as an excuse to further crack down on the use of fossil fuels in the United States.”

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.


“Adoption of Paris Agreement,” 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, December 12, 2015: