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Daniel Bodansky

Reflections on the Paris Conference

by Daniel Bodansky

[Dan Bodansky is the Foundation Professor of Law and Faculty Co-Director of the Center for Law and Global Affairs at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. He was in Paris last week for the climate change negotiations. This is his seventh and final post regarding the conference. Professor Bodansky has consulted for the government of Switzerland and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) in relation to the Paris Summit. However, he is writing in his personal capacity and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the Swiss government or C2ES.]

The dust has barely settled on the Paris conference, but already it has prompted an avalanche of comment – and there will be much more written, of course, in the coming weeks and months. For a summary of the conference results, see the report by C2ES. The following are a few more personal reflections.


Invidious comparisons of the Copenhagen and Paris conferences have been a staple of commentary. Copenhagen was a disaster and Paris a triumph. That is the usual line.

But, in many ways, Paris merely formalizes and extends the bottom-up paradigm to which the 2009 Copenhagen Conference gave birth. Indeed, most of the key elements of the Paris Agreement can be found in the Copenhagen Accord:

  • The goal of holding global warming below 2° C.
  • The system of national pledges to reduce emissions (referred to in the Paris Agreement as “nationally determined contributions”).
  • The non-binding character of these contributions, and the reliance on transparency rather than legal enforcement to promote accountability and effectiveness.
  • The shift away from the binary approach to differentiation that was at the heart of the Kyoto Protocol, towards a more flexible approach that encompasses all countries.
  • The pledge to mobilize climate finance from public and private sources (with a target figure of $100 billion specified in the Paris decision text but not the agreement itself).
  • And, perhaps most importantly, the extension of the regime to address the vast majority of global emissions, rather than focusing only on the emissions of “developed” countries.

In essence, what the Paris Agreement does is tie a treaty ribbon around these key elements of the Copenhagen Accord.

To be sure, the Paris Agreement does not simply recapitulate the Copenhagen Accord; it represents a progression down the Copenhagen path. The Paris Agreement builds on Copenhagen in three important respects.

Differentiation – First, it creates a more common system for all countries than the Copenhagen Accord. Copenhagen still retained elements of the binary approach to differentiation of the Kyoto Protocol, with distinctions drawn in various provisions between Annex I and non-Annex I parties. In contrast, the Paris Agreement completely abandons the Annex I/non-Annex I bifurcation. Most of the commitments in the Paris Agreement apply to all parties, including the commitments to formulate, communicate and update NDCs, and to submit the information necessary to track progress in implementing NDCs. Instead of the binary system of MRV in Copenhagen, with international assessment and review (IAR) for Annex I parties and international consultation and analysis (ICA) for non-Annex I parties, the Paris Agreement provides for a common system of reporting and review, with built-in flexibility to take account of different national capacities and circumstances. In addition, while the financial commitments of developed countries are reaffirmed, the Paris Agreement enlarges the donor base by encouraging other countries to provide financial support.

Durability – Second, the Paris Agreement gives the Copenhagen architecture a more durable character, both by putting it in treaty form and by calling for successive NDCs every five years, to be informed by periodic global stock-takes. The Copenhagen Accord addressed only the period up until 2020, through a one-off pledging process. The Paris Agreement, in contrast, establishes an ongoing regime of indefinite duration.

A rule-based structure – Finally, the Paris Agreement has a hybrid architecture, supplementing the bottom-up system of NDCs with internationally-negotiated rules to introduce some discipline into the national pledging process, which had been something of a free-for-all in Copenhagen. For example, the agreement requires parties to provide the information necessary to ensure that their NDCs are clear and transparent and to track progress in implementation, and provides that NDCs are to become progressively more ambitious over time.

Why Did Paris Succeed? Process and Product

In every important respect, the Paris Agreement moves away from the positions of those that opposed the Copenhagen Accord (or failed to support it the final night when the conference unraveled) and towards those that supported it. The Paris Agreement is less differentiated, provides for stronger transparency, and has a stronger legal form than Copenhagen. So why was Copenhagen rejected and Paris accepted?

Some point to the deft diplomacy of the French, and this certainly played a role. But I think it is overstated.   In Copenhagen, the Danish presidency was systematically undermined by those who wanted the conference to fail. Before the conference had even begun, they leaked the Danish negotiating text; then, during the conference, they repeatedly blocked attempts to convene a smaller group to work out the agreement, arguing that such a group would be undemocratic and untransparent – even though “friends of the chair” groups have a long pedigree in the UNFCCC process and had been the primary means of resolving crunch issues at virtually every COP prior to Copenhagen.

Of course, the Danes created openings for those who wished to raise procedural objections, most importantly, by not using the text from the official U.N. negotiations as the basis for their compromise text. The French learned from this mistake. From early on, they insisted that they did not have a separate text in their back pocket and would work with the negotiating text emerging from the ADP. That helped defuse suspicions and allowed countries to feel that they had ownership of the Paris Agreement.

But if countries had wished to raise procedural objections in Paris, they still had opportunities to do so, since in many ways the Paris endgame was even less transparent than Copenhagen. Rather than convene a broadly representative “friends of the chair” group, as the Danes tried to do, the French presidency held a series of consultations with individual countries during the final day and night, and individual delegations and groups of delegations met informally with one another. Virtually no one knew who was meeting with whom, and where the text stood. The result of this fluid, ad hoc process was a text containing new provisions of unknown provenance, which most delegations saw for the first time when it was presented to them in final form on Saturday afternoon, hours before the end of the conference.

Why did countries accept this final text, rather than raise procedural objections? To say that they did so because they liked and trusted Minister Fabius and wanted to reward his excellent job chairing the conference would trivialize the issues at stake. Yes, the trust he engendered helped, but it was not the main reason why Paris succeeded. The explanation instead lies in three factors:

First, while the Copenhagen architecture had been new in 2009, countries had become familiar with it by the time the Paris conference was held. After failing to gain acceptance in Copenhagen, it had been largely adopted the following year in the Cancun Agreements, and was reflected in the decisions leading up to Paris. So the foundation of the Paris Agreement had already been laid. Countries knew at least the broad outlines of what they were getting.

Second, the positions of several key developing countries, including China and Brazil, had evolved considerably.   In Copenhagen, they still hoped for an indefinite continuation of the Kyoto Protocol; indeed two years later, in Durban, adoption of a second commitment period under Kyoto was a precondition for agreement to begin the Paris negotiations. Although no decision was ever formally made not to continue Kyoto, everyone seem to have accepted by Paris that the next phase of the climate change regime would be a single agreement applicable to all parties. The joint announcement by the United States and China in fall 2014 heralded this shift, and gave many observers confidence that Paris would succeed where Copenhagen had failed. In Paris, the Kyoto Protocol was the dog that didn’t bark, and it looks like it will now go gently into the night.

Finally, expectations for Paris were much more realistic than Copenhagen.   Leading up to Copenhagen, it was obvious to close observers that countries would not be able to reach a legal agreement. But most people expected a legal agreement and took this as the benchmark of success, so it was easy to portray Copenhagen as a failure.

For Want of a “Should” the Paris Agreement Was Almost Lost

The end game of COPs is always a process of trench warfare, in which virtually every word is fought over, and gains and losses are measured in commas and brackets. One has to be a COP-ologist, familiar with the subtle history and nuance of every provision, to follow the to and fro.

For international relations scholars who wonder whether international agreements have any effect, the obsession with words may seem peculiar. But at least sometimes they matter.

This was particularly true of the last issue to be resolved in Paris: whether the provision that developed countries undertake absolute, economy-wide emission targets (Article 4.4) would be a “shall” or a “should.”  The ability of the United States to join the Paris Agreement hinged on which word was chosen, so the issue could not have been more consequential. Arguably, if the provision said “shall” and hence represented a legal commitment, then Senate or Congressional approval would have been required for US participation, whereas if the provision was a “should,” then the Paris Agreement could be accepted by the President as a presidential-executive agreement. Although the issue first erupted publicly the final afternoon of the meeting and delayed the closing plenary by more than an hour, reportedly it had featured prominently in the negotiations for some time and had consistently been resolved in earlier drafts in favor of “should.” How the word “shall” appeared in the final text presented on Saturday afternoon is a bit of a mystery. But, in any event, the issue was finally resolved through a Secretariat statement that use of the word, “shall,” was a “technical” error, and that “shall” would be replaced by “should.” A gasp went through the room when the Secretariat read the change, but no one raised an objection, and Fabius gaveled the agreement through by acclamation.

And the Show Goes On

The Paris conference gave new hope to the UN climate change process. But much remains to be done. Countries were able to agree only to the basic structure of the new climate change regime – the cycle of NDCs, reporting, review, stocktaking, and updating. Now, they must elaborate more detailed rules for how the Paris Agreement will work in practice – rules for reporting and review, international emissions trading, and a host of other issues.

If the Paris Agreement represented a true consensus on a new paradigm, then the next phase of the negotiations might be a more technical one. But I think that many developing countries accepted the move away from binary differentiation only reluctantly. And if twenty years of following the climate change negotiations has taught me anything, it is that nothing is ever fully settled; countries constantly push to regain ground that they had previously ceded.

The Paris Agreement is a particularly important moment in the ongoing process of climate negotiations. But it is not the end. At least for the foreseeable future, the UN climate change regime will likely remain a full employment agreement for climate negotiators.

Is the Paris Agreement Historic?

by Daniel Bodansky


[Dan Bodansky is the Foundation Professor of Law and Faculty Co-Director of the Center for Law and Global Affairs at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. He is in Paris for the climate change negotiations. This is the sixth in a series of updates both from the U.S. and from Paris. Professor Bodansky has consulted for the government of Switzerland and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) in relation to the Paris Summit. However, he is writing in his personal capacity and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the Swiss government or C2ES.]

COP-21 adopted the Paris Agreement (.pdf) at around 7:30 pm on Saturday night, a remarkably punctual conclusion by COP standards. There was a bit of drama at the end, over a “should” vs. “shall” in one of the provisions (more on that tomorrow), and the final plenary waited for more than an hour while the French presidency, the United States and Brazil tried to work it out. But there was none of the chaos and grandstanding that usually characterizes the end game of climate conferences.

How should we evaluate the Paris Agreement? Certainly, it satisfied the rather modest criteria of success I identified before the conference began. It is a solid outcome, and the French team that led the conference and the negotiators who worked round the clock to finalize the agreement can feel proud of their achievement. Compared to past climate conferences, the Paris conference is definitely cause for celebration.

But is the Paris Agreement historic, as speaker after speaker last night declared? If we focus only on the agreement’s relatively spare contents, it seems hardly the stuff of history. Yes, the agreement does some positive things: it requires countries to put forward “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) – that is, pledges about what they will do to reduce emissions; it provides for transparency and review, to hold countries accountable for what they say; and it provides for a global stocktaking every 5 years and a process to update NDCs, in order to drive greater ambition over time. But one shouldn’t oversell these results. The NDCs put forward pre-Paris fall far short of putting the world on a pathway to holding temperature change to below 2° C. Countries’ NDCs are not legally binding. There is little new in the agreement on adaptation and finance. And the provisions regarding transparency and review are skeletal, and will need to be fleshed out by subsequent decisions.

Still, despite its relatively modest substance, the Paris Agreement is potentially pivotal, because it completes the paradigm shift from the bifurcated world of the Kyoto Protocol, which rigidly distinguished between “Annex I” and “non-Annex I” countries, to the common global framework that began to emerge in the Copenhagen Accord. The world has changed a great deal from 1992, when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted and Annex I defined. Many of the world’s richest countries, like Singapore and Qatar, are still considered “developing” under the Convention’s outdated annexes. And, more importantly, most of the growth in greenhouse gas emissions over the next century will occur in “developing” countries. So reorienting the UN climate change regime to make it truly global is essential to solving the climate change problem.

Getting there wasn’t easy. Many developing countries were extremely reluctant to give up the deal they had gotten in Kyoto. That’s one of the reasons why the negotiations in Paris were so difficult. (Other reasons include the reluctance of donor countries to provide more finance and the need for the US to avoid commitments that might require Senate or Congressional approval.) In order to achieve a common approach, the US and other western countries had to accept somewhat limited provisions on transparency and updating. But this was a small price to pay, if the Paris agreement finally puts the climate regime on a broad-based, durable footing, which can be progressively strengthened over time. If that happens – and, of course, only time will tell – then the Paris agreement will merit the accolades that were showered on it today.

The Endowment Effect and the International Climate Change Negotiations

by Daniel Bodansky

[Dan Bodansky is the Foundation Professor of Law and Faculty Co-Director of the Center for Law and Global Affairs at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. He is in Paris for the climate change negotiations. This is the fifth in a series of updates both from the U.S. and from Paris. Professor Bodansky has consulted for the government of Switzerland and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) in relation to the Paris Summit. However, he is writing in his personal capacity and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the Swiss government or C2ES.]

According to the endowment effect, people care more about losses than gains. If the no-Paris-agreement status quo represents country’s current endowment, then the endowment effect suggests that countries will place a higher priority on removing provisions in the Paris agreement that represent losses to them, than on including provisions that represent wins. That is why, in reaching an agreement, countries tend to resolve differences by removing provisions rather than by adding them. Hence the incredible shrinking climate agreement that I described in my earlier post.

Yesterday afternoon, the French put out a new version of the text (.pdf). Even though it made relatively modest changes, and left all of the crunch issues unresolved, and even though all countries accepted it as a basis of negotiations, they raised many objections in a three-plus hour meeting of the Paris Committee last night. Indeed virtually every option that the French text had tried to remove, some country insisted on putting back in. Following the Paris Committee, which ended at about 11:30 PM, the French presidency convened a smaller, closed meeting (known as an Indaba, a term that originated at the 2011 Durban COP), which reportedly ran until 7:30 AM. Apparently, the Indaba made little progress in bridging differences, so the French are now conducting bilateral consultations with a wide variety of countries, to try to reach agreement on “landing zones” for the various issues in the text.

Interestingly, the issue that was probably raised most frequently last night in the public meeting of the Paris Committee was the need to strengthen the long-term goal from the current goal of limiting temperature increase to no more than 2° C, to a goal of no more than 1.5° C. Since most analysts agree that there is no prospect of meeting the below-2° target, it is unclear what benefit would be provided by adopting an even more unrealistic temperature goal. Supporters of the 1.5° goal remind me of the courtiers to King Canute, who thought he could command the tide not to rise – they seem to believe that saying 1.5° will make it so. This reflects a touching faith in the power of words, but, frankly, I think the efforts to include a 1.5° degree goal might better be spent on including provisions in the agreement that are most likely to actually reduce emissions, such as a strong transparency system and a ratchet mechanism to encourage progressively more ambitious action over time.

The negotiations are now going 24/7. Although they are scheduled to end on Friday, most assume that they will continue into Saturday and possibly Sunday. A good indicator is that most delegations with whom I’ve spoken have booked return tickets for Monday!

Correction:  My original post incorrectly suggested that King Cnut actually believed he could command the tide to stop.  But, apparently, the correct rendition of the story is that King Cnut knew he was powerless to stop the tide from rising, and ordered it to do so either to show the supreme power of God over his own secular power, or to rebuke his fawning courtiers (depending on which version of the tale one reads).

The Incredible Shrinking Climate Agreement?

by Daniel Bodansky

[Dan Bodansky is the Foundation Professor of Law and Faculty Co-Director of the Center for Law and Global Affairs at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. He is in Paris for the climate change negotiations. This is the fourth in a series of updates both from the U.S. and from Paris. Professor Bodansky has consulted for the government of Switzerland and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) in relation to the Paris Summit. However, he is writing in his personal capacity and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the Swiss government or C2ES.]

“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from COP to COP.” For many, that might be the slogan of the UN climate change regime. Or, to mix literary metaphors, the COPs are reminiscent of Sartre’s No Exit, where hell consisted of being locked in a room talking to the same small group of people for eternity.

Paris is the opportunity to prove the skeptics wrong – to show that the climate change regime can take a real step forward, rather than just creep along from COP to COP. But whether it will succeed in doing so remains an open question.

First, the good news. Paris is definitely one of the best-organized COPs ever – the French have done a fantastic job. And the mood, perhaps not coincidentally, is also good, totally unlike the poisonous atmosphere in Copenhagen, where some countries sought to systematically undermine the Danish Presidency. In contrast, one hears nothing but praise for the French team’s handling of COP21. Instead of angry protesters outside the venue, people are handing out apples, as a taste of biodiversity.

Moreover, the text is gradually being streamlined to a more manageable size., a group based at UC San Diego, have been tracking the number of brackets and options in each successive iteration of the negotiating text. According to their figures, the number of brackets in the December 5 text has shrunk by 45% from the November 10 text, and the number of options by 60%. Of course, their work reminds me a bit of the Monty Python skit in which John Cleese compares the difficulty of Shakespeare’s plays in terms of the number of words they contain: Hamlet has 8262, Othello has 941 words fewer, and so forth. But then he adds, “Ah well, I don’t want you to get the impression it’s just the number of words … I mean, getting them in the right order is just as important.” Something similar could be said of brackets; it’s not just the number, it’s also a matter of whether they reflect real differences or are just negotiating ploys. That said, I do think it’s fair to infer that the shrinking number of brackets and options reflects progress. And I remain optimistic that there will be an agreement this week in Paris.

The question is what will survive the negotiating process and make it into the agreement. Although the text is in better shape than many expected and the number of crunch issues is relatively manageable, states continue to push proposals that have no prospect of being accepted, in an effort to gain negotiating leverage. So progress remains slow.

The political imperative of reaching a deal gives tremendous leverage to potential naysayers. The usual solution, when time is running out, is to cut and cut and cut, until the outcome doesn’t push any country past its comfort zone. Developing countries want strong provisions on finance and differentiation, while developed countries want more modest provisions. Conversely, developed countries want strong provisions on transparency and updating (to promote progressively higher mitigation ambition), while the big developing countries do not. How to bridge these differences? The easiest solution is to trade weak provisions on finance and differentiation for weak provisions on transparency and updating.

Even if this is how the end game plays out – and that is, of course, by no means a foregone conclusion – I don’t think it would be fair to characterize the Paris process as a failure. Paris has served as a catalyst both for national governments and for sub-national and non-governmental initiatives. It has prompted more than 185 countries to put forward INDCs, which would reduce emissions by an estimated 4-8 gigatons below business as usual by 2030, according to a recent report by UNEP. It has led to a groundswell of activities by cities, regions, and companies. And it has spawned initiatives like Mission Innovation, announced last week by President Obama, President Hollande, and leaders from 18 other countries, who pledged to double their clean energy R & D over the next five years, as well as the related private initiative, the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, led by Bill Gates. So, in many ways, Paris is already a success. Nevertheless, the international agreement that the Paris process is supposed to produce is also a key ingredient. If the INDCs submitted by countries aren’t bolstered by an agreement with strong provisions on transparency and ambition, then I think Paris will be a lost opportunity to show that the UN process can do more than creep – that there’s a way out of the room within which the negotiators have been locked.

Crunch Issues in Paris

by Daniel Bodansky

[Dan Bodansky is the Foundation Professor of Law and Faculty Co-Director of the Center for Law and Global Affairs at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. He is in Paris for the climate change negotiations. This is the third in a series of updates both from the U.S. and from Paris. Professor Bodansky has consulted for the government of Switzerland and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) in relation to the Paris Summit. However, he is writing in his personal capacity and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the Swiss government or C2ES.]

In an earlier post, I expressed cautious optimism that the Paris conference will succeed in adopting a legal agreement that requires countries to formulate and submit emission reduction plans, provides for international transparency and review, and establishes a process for countries to periodically ratchet up their efforts. But although the broad outlines of the agreement have been apparent for several years, a number of important issues remain to be resolved, on which the conference could still founder.

Here’s a brief summary of the “crunch” issues:

• How to reflect the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDR-RC)?

The issue of differentiation has been one of the most controversial since the inception of the UN climate change regime, and plays out across all of the different elements of the Paris agreement: mitigation, adaptation, finance, and transparency. It’s clear that the Paris agreement will move away from the rigid differentiation between Annex I and non-Annex I countries found in the Kyoto Protocol, towards a more global approach. But will any vestige of the Annex I/non-Annex I dichotomy remain?

Developed countries mostly argue that the concept of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) implies self-differentiation and that this self-differentiation is sufficient. But many developing countries would like some continuation of the categorical, annex-based approach found in the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol. The 2014 US-China joint announcement added the phrase “in light of different national circumstances” to the principle of CBDR-RC, apparently to give it a more dynamic quality. This formulation was included in the Lima Call for Action (.pdf), and will almost certainly find its way into the Paris Agreement. But a general reference to CBDR-RC will likely not be enough to satisfy developing countries, so expect to see some additional language on differentiation in particular articles, for example, those on mitigation and transparency.

I don’t see the US and other developed countries accepting a reference in the Paris agreement to the UNFCCC annexes, which they view as outmoded, but my guess is that negotiators will find some language to bridge the gap – for example, in the context of mitigation, a principle of progression, which provides that countries that have previously pledged absolute economy-wide targets should continue to do so and that all countries should aim to do so over time. This formulation, in effect, differentiates between Annex I countries (which all pledged absolute, economy wide emissions targets in Copenhagen) and non-Annex I countries, without any explicit reference to the annexes, and thus might be acceptable to both sides.

• Whether to include a long-term decarbonization goal?

In Copenhagen, states agreed to a goal of limiting climate change to no more than 2° C. There is considerable – but not universal – support for supplementing this goal with a long-term decarbonization goal, like that included in the G-8 Leaders Statement last June, to provide a signal to business and investors. Many countries would like to include a decarbonization goal in the Paris agreement itself, but if consensus cannot be reached to do so, a possible fallback would be to include the goal in the Conference of the Parties (COP) decision that adopts the Paris agreement, which would give the goal a slightly lesser political status.

• Whether to include a commitment that parties implement their nationally determined contributions (NDCs)?

A central issue in the negotiations has been what commitments to include with respect to NDCs. There is broad agreement to include procedural commitments – for example, to formulate, submit, and periodically update NDCs. And even countries that seek to make NDCs legally binding seem to accept that the agreement will not commit countries to achieve their NDCs (thus distinguishing the Paris agreement from the Kyoto Protocol). But the European Union and some developing countries wish to include a commitment relating to implementation of NDCs.

A duty to implement, as compared to a duty to achieve, is an obligation of conduct rather than result. But if the Paris agreement contained a straightforward obligation on parties to implement their NDCs, then the difference between the two approaches appears small, since, arguably, the test of whether a state has implemented its NDC is whether it has achieved its NDC. This has led to a search for softer formulations of the commitment to implement: for example, a commitment to adopt measures “aimed” or “intended” to implement a country’s NDC, or a commitment to adopt implementing measures “related to” a country’s NDC. The trick is to find some formulation that (more…)

The Legal Character of the Paris Agreement: A Primer

by Daniel Bodansky

[Dan Bodansky is the Foundation Professor of Law and Faculty Co-Director of the Center for Law and Global Affairs at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. He will be in Paris for the climate change negotiations. This is the second in a series of updates both from the U.S. and from Paris. Professor Bodansky has consulted for the government of Switzerland and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) in relation to the Paris Summit. However, he is writing in his personal capacity and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the Swiss government or C2ES.]

Confusion reigns supreme about the legal character of the Paris agreement.  Last month, Secretary of State Kerry made waves in Europe when he said that the Paris agreement would “definitely not be a treaty.”  This prompted President Hollande to respond, “If the deal is not legally binding, there is no accord, because that would mean it’s not possible to verify or control commitments that are made.”  And just yesterday, the New York Times reported that the Paris agreement will not be “a legally binding treaty” that needs ratification by governments to have force, but will instead consist of “voluntary plans” that “avoid the legal definition of a treaty.”

So here is a quick primer on the legal character of the Paris Agreement:

First, there appears to be no question that the agreement will be a “treaty” within the meaning of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, that is “an international agreement concluded between States in written form and governed by international law” (VCLT art. 2.1(a)). As the VCLT expressly states, whether an agreement constitutes a treaty does not depend on what the agreement is called.  Rather, it depends on whether the agreement’s contents manifest an intent by the parties that the agreement be governed by international law. The current negotiating text includes final clauses addressing such issues as signature, ratification, entry into force, and depositary, which make sense only if the parties wish to make the agreement a treaty under international law.

Second, although the VCLT provides that agreements are binding upon the parties and must be performed by them in good faith (VCLT art. 26), not every provision in a treaty necessarily creates a legal obligation, the breach of which entails non-compliance. Often, treaties contain a mix of mandatory and hortatory elements.  For example, the emissions target set forth in Article 4.2 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was expressed as an “aim.”  So, even though the Paris agreement will be a treaty, not every element of it need be legally binding on the parties.  For example, countries’ “nationally-determined contributions” (NDCs) – that is, their emission reduction targets – could take the form of a political aim rather than a legal obligation.

Third, the term “treaty” has a narrower meaning in US law than in international law, referring to agreements that the President sends to the Senate for advice and consent to ratification under Article II of the Constitution.  The vast majority of treaties in the international sense are not adopted as Article II “treaties;” rather they are adopted as “executive agreements,” in most cases with the approval of Congress, but in some cases by the President acting alone.  So even if the Paris agreement is a treaty under international law, it need not be adopted by the United States as a “treaty” under Article II of the Constitution.  (For more on the issue of US adoption, see Julian Ku’s recent post, A Treaty or Not a Treaty.)  This may have been what Secretary Kerry meant when he said that the Paris agreement would “definitely not be a treaty.”

Fourth, whether the Paris agreement is adopted by the United States as an Article II treaty, with the advice and consent of the Senate, or as an executive agreement, by the President acting alone, would not affect its character under international law or the ability of a future President or Congress to withdraw.  Regardless of the procedure for adoption, as a matter of international law, the right of the United States to withdraw would be governed by the agreement’s withdrawal clause, and, as a matter of US law, US participation could in practice be terminated by a future president through executive action or by Congress through the enactment of a later-in-time statute.

Finally, although most people, including President Hollande, assume that the Paris agreement will be more effective if countries’ NDCs are legally binding, this is not necessarily the case.  The effectiveness of an international regime is a function of three factors:  (1) the ambition of its commitments; (2) the level of participation by states; and (3) the degree to which states comply.   Those who argue for the importance of a legally binding outcome in Paris focus primarily on compliance.  But the legally binding character of parties’ NDCs could also affect ambition and participation, potentially in negative ways.  Moreover, even if the legally-binding character of a provision does enhance compliance – a plausible hypothesis but one that has resisted empirical demonstration – other factors can also promote compliance, including transparency and accountability mechanisms, which make it more likely that poor performance will be detected and criticized, thereby raising the reputational costs for the state concerned.  Contra President Hollande, these verification procedures do not depend on the legal character of parties’ NDCs; non-binding provisions can also be subject to a strong system of monitoring, reporting and verification.   So the question is how much additional compliance would result from making NDCs legally binding, and whether this value-added for compliance might be outweighed by a diminution in participation and/or ambition.

For more on the legal status of the Paris agreement, see Bodansky and Rajamani, Key Legal Issues in the 2015 Climate Negotiations (Center for Climate and Energy Solutions 2015), Bodansky, Legally Binding vs. Non-Legally Binding Instruments, in Scott Barrett, Carlo Carraro & Jaime de Melo, eds., Towards a Workable and Effective Climate Regime (VoxEU eBook 2015), and Bodansky, Legal Options for US Acceptance of a New Climate Change Agreement (Center for Climate and Energy Solutions 2014), from which this post is drawn.

What Would Constitute Success in Paris?

by Daniel Bodansky

[Dan Bodansky is the Foundation Professor of Law and Faculty Co-Director of the Center for Law and Global Affairs at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. He will be in Paris for the climate change negotiations. This is the first in a series of updates both from the U.S. and from Paris. Professor Bodansky has consulted for the government of Switzerland and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) in relation to the Paris Summit. However, he is writing in his personal capacity and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the Swiss government or C2ES.]

The latest episode of the long-running drama known as the UN climate change negotiations begins this week in Paris. Commentators are touting the Paris conference as “historic”, “pivotal,” the “last chance” for the world to address the climate change problem. So what would constitute success?

For the past couple of decades, political scientists and international lawyers have debated how to measure the effectiveness of international environmental regimes. The gold standard of effectiveness is whether an agreement solves the problem that it seeks to address. That would require the Paris conference to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic climate change” – the explicit objective of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. No one is exactly sure how much global warming would be compatible with this objective; to the extent severe weather events like the 2003 Paris heat wave (.pdf) or Hurricane Sandy can be attributed to global warming, then perhaps we are already in the dangerous zone. At the Copenhagen Conference, the international community defined the goal less stringently, as warming of less than 2° C above pre-industrial levels. But some think that 2° itself would be too much, arguing for limits of 1.5° or even .

So far, the world has warmed by about 1°, according to the latest data from the UK Met Office. This might suggest that we’ve still got some headroom, measured against the 2° temperature. But the climate system has tremendous inertia, so the effects of past emissions have been only partially realized. Even if we stopped emitting completely right now, the world would still warm by another half degree or more before leveling off. And, of course, global emissions continue to go up rather than down, and peak emissions, let alone zero emissions, are still more than a decade away.

The bottom line is that there is no prospect that the Paris conference will, in itself, put us on a pathway to meeting the below-2° limit. The emission reduction goals that countries have submitted as part of the Paris process (known in climate change argot as “intended nationally determined contributions” or INDCs) instead put the world on a pathway to global warming of around 3° or 3.5°. So if we take problem-solving effectiveness as our measure of success, then we are bound to be disappointed.

But few public policies fully solve the problem that they address; by that standard, virtually every public policy falls short. In my view, the more reasonable test is whether the Paris conference results in a significant improvement over what would have happened otherwise. And by this measure, the Paris conference is likely to be successful.

How should we assess whether Paris is moving us in the right direction? I would suggest four elements:

• First, is the Paris agreement global in its coverage?
• Second, have countries pledged to make significant reductions in their emissions?
• Third, does the agreement establish mechanisms to promote transparency and accountability, so that we will know whether countries do what they say?
• Fourth, does the agreement provide a process to to ratchet up its level of ambition over time?

On the first element, the Paris process can already be counted a success. More than 150 countries, representing more than 85% of global emissions, have come forward with INDCs – that is pledges of what they’re going to do to reduce emissions. Compared to the Kyoto Protocol, which even in its prime covered only about 25% of global emissions, this a major step forward.

Second, the INDCs that countries have submitted represent a significant improvement over current policy. According to a recent analysis by the UN Climate Change Secretariat, they would reduce emissions by about 3 gigatons (GT) CO2e in 2025 and 4 GT in 2030, as compared to the business-as-usual trajectory. Although this falls well short of putting the world on a below-2° pathway, global warming of 3° C would still be better than 3.5°, and 3.5° better than 4°, and 4° better than 5°. So if Paris moves us down the scale of likely warming, then this represents progress.

Third, countries seem likely to agree to a relatively robust system of reporting and review. While transparency in itself does not ensure that countries will comply, at least it would allow the international community to assess whether countries are living up to their pledges, and to exert peer pressure if they don’t.

Finally, countries also look likely to agree to come back every five years to take stock of what’s been achieved and how that compares to the 2° goal, and to put forward new, more ambitious emission reduction plans.

So I am cautiously optimistic about the Paris conference. Of course, one shouldn’t underestimate the capacity of the UN climate change process to seize defeat from the jaws of victory. And the victory would, in any event, be only partial. But if Paris establishes a durable framework that is global in scope, provides for transparency, and pushes to strengthen ambition over time, then, for me, that would be a significant achievement and would constitute success.

Guest Post: A Big Deal on Climate?

by Daniel Bodansky

[Daniel Bodansky is Foundation Professor of Law at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University.]

Is the US-China joint announcement on climate change a big deal? Opinions differ widely. Paul Krugman says yes, Tyler Cowan, no.

Who’s right? Is the announcement a “gamechanger,” as Joe Romm thinks, or “a well-timed, well-orchestrated press release,” as Cowan calls it? In part, the different answers reflect different measures of success, a point to which I will return in a moment.

But, first, a little background. Back in 2011, the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change adopted the Durban Platform, which launched negotiations to develop a new legal instrument to limit global greenhouse gas emissions post-2020. The Durban Platform negotiations are to be completed and a new agreement adopted in December 2015 at the Paris conference of the parties. A decision adopted last year in Warsaw called on states to communicate their intended national contributions to the new agreement well in advance of the Paris meeting. What the United States and China unveiled in Beijing – although generally characterized as an “agreement” or “pact” – were their intended national emission targets under the 2015 agreement.

At least four metrics are relevant in evaluating the joint announcement:

First, do the announced targets put us on a pathway towards limiting climate change to safe levels? Safety involves value judgments, of course, but most scientists believe that warming of more 1.5-2° C above pre-industrial levels would result in dangerous impacts – impacts that most people would wish to avoid. (The earth is already about .8 degrees warmer than pre-industrial level, so we’re almost halfway there.) Even the most ardent boosters of the US-China deal don’t claim that, by itself, it will put the world on a 2° pathway, only that it is a first step.

Second, do the targets announced by the United States and China represent a significant improvement over business as usual? Or, to put it differently, will achieving them require the US and China to significantly ratchet up their level of effort? Here, opinions differ widely, because they depend on judgments about what would happen in the absence of the targets, which in turn depend on assumptions about the economy, technology, and government policies more generally – all of which are highly uncertain. Who would have predicted, ten years ago, the Great Recession and the rapid expansion of fracking, both of which have had a huge influence on US emissions? So it is perhaps not surprising that some analysts say the US-China announcement “doesn’t change things much,” while others think it represents a major advance. Climate Interactive, for example, calculates that the US-China targets, if fully implemented, would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 650 billion tons through 2100 – and if other countries follow suit, taking similar targets, global emissions would be reduced by about 2500 billion tons through 2100.

A brief sampling of estimates of Chinese and US emissions:  (more…)

The Illegitimacy of “Legitimacy”

by Daniel Bodansky

[Professor Dan Bodansky is continuing his dispatches from the climate change talks.  This post is cross-posted at the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at Oxford.]

Copenhagen, December 17 – With the hours counting down to the end of the Copenhagen conference, real substantive negotiations have yet to begin. Instead, the focus has been almost exclusively on procedure. All week, the Danes have wanted to put forward their own compromise text, which would be negotiated in a smaller group – the approach typically used to hammer out an agreement. But some developing countries – most notably Sudan, Bolivia and Venezuela (apparently with the (at least) tacit support of China) — have rejected this approach, arguing that it lacks transparency and is hence illegitimate. Instead, they have insisted that the only “legitimate negotiating process” is to continue to negotiate on the basis of the heavily bracketed text that emerged over the last two years in the two ad-hoc working groups, in negotiating groups open to participation by all parties. In my view, this process virtually guarantees that the Copenhagen conference will not produce a meaningful agreement, since the texts emerging from the two ad hoc working groups are a mess, with multiple options within options, and negotiating them in an open-ended group, with hundreds of delegations, is a prescription for deadlock.

The refusal by some developing countries to allow the Danes to introduce a text or to negotiate in a smaller group is made in the name of ensuring a legitimate, transparent, democratic process. But another way of understanding it is as a cynical effort by certain countries to use procedural objections to prevent a substantive agreement. Yesterday, after the Danes said they would table new texts, developing countries objected and the formal meetings were suspended for most of the day while the Danes consulted with developing countries about how to proceed. Reportedly, the G-77 (the developing country negotiated group) refused to participate in a smaller group organized by the Danish presidency to have substantive negotiations.

Today, in a desperate effort to move from procedure to substance, the Danes accepted the procedural approach insisted upon by developing countries. They promised not to introduce any new texts, and convened two “contact groups” that are open-ended in participation, to consider the texts forwarded from the ad hoc working groups. Meanwhile, it appears increasingly likely that the conference outcome will be a short political declaration largely devoid of substance, and a procedural decision to continue the “process,” such as it is. The ultimate question, of course, is whether there is a deal to be had that bridges the gap between the US, which wants a common legal framework for developed and developing countries (including common provisions on monitoring, reporting and verification); the major developing country economies, which want to preserve the strong differentiation reflected in Kyoto; and the European Union, which would be willing to commit to another round of Kyoto-like targets, but only if the US is subject to a comparable regime and developing countries are willing to join a new legal agreement that subjects them to stronger commitments.

Update from Copenhagen

by Daniel Bodansky

Monday, December 14 – The climate negotiations ground to a halt for much of today, as negotiators debated the organization of work for the second and final week of the meeting. The ostensible cause of the breakdown was concern among (some?) developing countries that the Kyoto Protocol (KP) track in the negotiations is moving more slowly, and getting less attention, than the Convention track (the so-called Long-Term Cooperation Action track, or LCA) (although since the LCA track is itself moving very slowly, it is a bit difficult to understand the concern). For many members of the G-77, the differentiation enshrined in the Kyoto Protocol between developed countries (which have quantified emission reduction targets) and developing countries (which do not) is sacred. All last week, developing countries had been emphasizing the importance of continuing the Kyoto Protocol, rather than merging it into a single comprehensive agreement that addresses both developed and developing countries (as the EU, Japan and other industrialized countries would prefer). At the procedural level, this developing country position is reflected in a desire to maintain the complete separation between the two tracks in the negotiations, rather than merging them into a single discussion, as the Danes apparently envisioned.

But whether substantive concerns about the KP’s future fully explain today’s events is open to question The organization of work envisioned by the Danes (as COP president) had apparently received tacit approval at a ministerial meeting held on Sunday. So there is no reason why developing countries that had accepted the work program yesterday should suddenly object today. One possible explanation is that Sunday’s ministerial meeting included only a select group of about forty countries, and today’s work suspension reflected a move by the countries excluded from Sunday’s meeting to reassert themselves. Others speculate that today’s events reflect a reaction by working level negotiators worried that ministers might be too willing to reach agreement. Whatever the explanation, the COP lost the better part of a day, with only two days remaining now before heads of state arrive.

Ultimately, the Danish president convened a ministerial-level group to consider Kyoto Protocol issues, and a series of ministerial-led groups to consider particular issues in the LCA, including: the long-term goal of limiting temperature change (2 degrees, 1 ½ degrees, etc.), the way in which developing country actions are be reflected (a schedule, registry, etc.), and the scale of financial contributions. The other issues in the LCA, not elevated to the ministerial level, will continue to be discussed tonight and tomorrow morning in the various LCA contact groups, with the LCA (in theory) scheduled to wrap up its work tomorrow night and to report back to the COP on Wednesday morning.

Overall the conference is chaotic. Reportedly, some participants spent the better part of the day outside waiting in the registration line. Meanwhile, inside, NGO observers sang songs, strummed the guitar, and organized a “crime scene” with Sherlock Holmes inspecting a chalk drawing on the floor of Africa. With the number of registered participants far exceeding the capacity of the conference, security guards will begin restricting access tomorrow, with each NGO receiving only a limited number of slots.

Dan Bodansky Letter from Copenhagen

by Daniel Bodansky

[As noted earlier, Professor Dan Bodansky is continuing his dispatches on the climate change talks.  He is Copenhagen this week and next, and sends us this initial letter from Copenhagen.  OJ will be providing additional commentary on the climate change talks — from the conference, and from other academic commentators — over the next week. Dan’s letter is being cross-posted at the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at Oxford.]

Under grey skies, the Copenhagen Climate Conference began this week in a sprawling complex at the edge of the city. Whether anything will actually happen here to address climate change remains an open question. But the conference is definitely a happening. Reportedly, more than 40,000 people have registered and the conference has dramatically more energy than the lead-up meetings (although that is an admittedly low standard of comparison). Indeed, my sense is that it’s on a bigger scale than any environmental meeting since Rio. And the energy will only build next week, with the arrival of more than 100 heads of state.

In theory, the outlook here should look bright, since the core substantive elements of the “deal” are already on the table. The major emitters have put forward their provisional national emission targets: 20-30% reductions from 1990 levels for the EU, in the range of 17% reductions from 2005 levels for the US, a 40-45% improvement in carbon intensity for China, and a 20-25 % intensity target for India. Although these numbers fall short of putting the world on a pathway towards the goal of limiting climate change to 2 degrees (indeed, there is disagreement whether the Chinese number is any improvement on BAU), I think few realistically expect them to be tightened during the course of the conference (although the EU has criticized both the US and EU numbers as too weak, so I may easily be proved wrong). Similarly, the figure of $10 billion annually in near-term (“fast start”) financial assistance, which the US and EU have endorsed, may not meet the financial needs of developing countries, but I don’t think it will be the subject of further negotiations.

With these substantive elements in place, one might expect a deal to be easy, but the reality is far different. Not only do the various negotiating texts remain a mess, there is still no political agreement on the “architectural” aspects of the regime, including the legal form of the ultimate outcome. The divergence of views is reflected in the two texts that are informally circulating at the meeting: a text that the Danish presidency put forward last month at a pre-COP ministerial meeting, which has drawn significant fire from developing countries; and the BASIC text developed by Brazil, South Africa, India and China (the so-called BASIC group). And the opening days of the session revealed the growing rifts within the G-77 (the developing country negotiating group) between those who favor a weaker and stronger outcome.

The following is a brief summary of the key issues in the negotiations:

Bodansky: Letter from the Barcelona Climate Change Talks

by Daniel Bodansky

[Daniel Bodansky, University of Georgia School of Law and OJ guest blogger, sends this dispatch on the state of the Climate Change talks leading up to the Copenhagen Conference.  Professor Bodansky will also be blogging from Copenhagen here at Opinio Juris in December.]

Barcelona, 4 November 2009

The UN climate change negotiations resumed on Monday in Barcelona, after only a three week hiatus since the last round in Bangkok. Between the official negotiations, the parallel political meetings of the major economies forum (MEF), the Commonwealth, and APEC, the numerous bilaterals (including the upcoming Obama visit to China), and the off-line dialogues convened by Denmark, the negotiating process will essentially be non-stop between now and when the Copenhagen Conference begins on December 7.

But progress remains elusive at best. The disconnect between the political urgency surrounding the climate change issue among political leaders and the insular world of the UNFCCC negotiations is growing ever more striking.

On the one hand, most of the key countries or groups – the EU, Japan, China, Brazil, India, South Africa, Indonesia and Australia – have either adopted or appear near to adopting domestic climate change policies. And although enactment of climate change legislation by the United States remains in doubt, a major bill has already passed the House of Representatives and the Senate is now beginning its consideration of similar legislation. So, from the perspective of national climate change policies, prospects have never been brighter. . . .