Climate justice from Kyoto to Paris

President Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement is a stark reminder that global efforts to combat climate change are fragile. GLOBUS researcher Franz von Lucke writes that while the Kyoto Protocol managed to include legally binding emission reduction targets, it failed to include developing countries. Comparatively, the approach taken in Paris recognises the voices of all affected parties, but its lack of legally binding emission reduction targets makes it vulnerable to changes in domestic politics.

Cop adoption
The Paris agreement was hailed as a long-awaited breakthrough. Is it more than just a paper tiger? (Photo: Adoption of the Paris agreement on 12 December 2015)

Heads of governments, civil society organisations, media outlets and also a recent article in this blog have hailed the latest climate agreement forged in December 2015 in Paris as a long-awaited and crucial breakthrough. In fact, the Paris Agreement has ended a period of uncertainty and difficult negotiations following the sobering failure of COP-15 in Copenhagen in 2009. It is the so far most encompassing climate agreement with more than 197 signature states (only Syria and Nicaragua have not signed) and includes progressive targets such as the ambition to limit global warming below 2 or even 1,5 degrees and encourages states to aim for carbon neutral economies.

Beyond that, despite the absence of centralised and fixed emission reduction targets, its ‘reaching-up’ and periodical review mechanisms are supposed to ensure progressively more ambitious commitments by its member states. In sum, the voluntary and bottom-up architecture of the agreement, as well as the transparent and inclusive negotiation approach of the French Presidency have succeeded in overcoming key obstacles in the climate negotiations and have considerably widened its reach.

Most importantly, the agreement has bridged the divide between developed and developing countries in general and the US and China in particular. It has also helped to circumvent a sceptical US Congress. Thus, the hopes were high that the agreement would substantively contribute to combat climate change and to global climate justice.

The Transformation of the Climate Negotiations Concerning Conceptions of Justice

From an analytical point of view and in light of broader debates on global justice, the climate negotiations and its key policy outcomes have transformed considerably over the last 20 years. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which finally entered into force in 2005, was highly centralised and included fairly progressive legally binding emission reduction targets.

Kyoto can be linked to a conception of global climate justice as impartiality that mainly focuses on universal principles and supranational solutions to abate climate change. Yet, while setting up clear-cut targets in advance and ensuring legal bindingness is desirable from a normative perspective, this came with a limited scope of the protocol. Under Kyoto, only a few developed countries were required to reduce emissions while most developing countries and emerging economies where exempted for the time being. This eventually also led to the withdrawal of the US due to fears of losing ground economically vis-à-vis these countries. In the end, Kyoto only covered 12% of global emissions, which some have criticised as nothing more than symbolic politics concerning global climate (in)justice.   

The failure to seriously recognise alternatives eventually prevented a comprehensive agreement.

The ambition for impartiality and the persistence on centralised legally binding emission reduction targets, particularly advanced by the EU and most of its members, has increasingly become a problem. While other factors such as a gridlock between the US and China and an inept conduction of the negotiations by the Danish Presidency also played a role, this approach considerably contributed to the failure to reach a global climate agreement in Copenhagen in 2009. The adherence to a specific legal structure that imposes binding and inflexible emission cuts onto states, and the failure to recognise alternatives seriously, prevented a comprehensive agreement.

COP15 sit-in protest
A sit-in protest at the COP15 in Copenhagen. (Photo: Australian Science Media Centre)

Although at first stalling the negotiations, this shocking defeat also initiated an important learning process. Especially the EU and its members began to understand that there was not only one valid approach to climate protection. It was necessary to recognise the legitimate concerns of other parties and to allow for some degree of freedom in tackling climate change. Thus, over the course of the next COPs in Cancun 2010, Warsaw 2013 and Paris 2015, transparency in the negotiations as well as truly recognising the (critical) voices of all affected parties around the globe, and especially those from the Global South, increasingly transformed the negotiations. The EU reconsidered its approach and began to develop diplomatic outreach activities such as the Green Diplomacy Network in order to include ideas from more critical actors into the architecture of the new global climate agreement.1

The EU and its members begun to understand that there was not only one valid approach to climate protection and that it was necessary to recognise the legitimate concerns of other parties and to allow for some degree of freedom in tackling climate change.

The Paris Agreement, which entered into force on 5 October 2016 and now has been ratified by two thirds of its 197 signatories, is the outcome of this changed approach to climate protection. It keeps the impartial ambition to base policy on climate science and to limit global warming below the critical 2- or 1.5-degree threshold of ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’ as specified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Yet the negotiations leading to it and the agreement itself have focused much more on recognising the concerns of all involved parties, and eventually refrained from inflexible centralised measures that limit the freedom of individual states.

Its main mechanism relies on the supposedly ever more progressive, but ultimately voluntary, ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ of its members. Thus, despite the hopes that a critical mass of states and the efforts of civil society as well as changed business practices will keep up the pressure for continuous efforts to abate climate change, its ultimate effect on the climate is very uncertain. The voluntary nature of the agreement has made it easy for states to become a member and hence greatly increased the scope of it in comparison to Kyoto, but it also increases the risk that Paris becomes yet another paper tiger.

Much Ado about Nothing? The Pitfalls of the Paris Agreement

US President Donald Trump’s announcement that the US will leave the Paris Agreement has increased the worries about the future effectiveness of the agreement. While constituting an influential symbolic setback, the announcement itself is only another step in a range of domestic decisions by the Trump administration that have undermined the country’s climate policies during the last couple of months. Some examples are the appointment of climate sceptic Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the plan to roll back or seriously cut the budget for various environmental programs.

Pruitt protest
The appointment of climate sceptic Scott Pruitt as head of the US Environmental Protection Agency has sparked protests. (Photo: Lorie Shaull)

It also joins the ranks of other worrying developments. For instance, the UK’s decision to leave the EU has stirred fears that the country could abandon its formerly progressive stance on climate protection. In the end, these developments exemplify the dangers inherent in the Paris approach to climate abatement, namely that it only is ‘much ado about nothing’. Others have described the climate protection regime in general as an ‘empty signifier’ that allows the participants to claim to be doing everything they can to protect the climate, while actually changing nothing fundamental.

This particularly pertains to the underlying economic structures and the fixation on economic growth, which have brought about the problem in the first place but are now being presented as part of the solution. The voluntary nature of Paris and the reliance on the ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ of its members entail the risk that after the initial enthusiasm – indeed, until now, investments in renewables have increased – has faded, states, corporations and investors again lose faith in climate protection. Even if the reaching-up mechanism works, the progress could very well only be incremental, hence in the end only a drop in the ocean in the face of the challenge.

Others have described the climate protection regime in general as an ‘empty signifier’  that allows the participants to claim to be doing everything they can to protect the climate, while actually changing nothing fundamental.

Of course, these problems do not exclusively apply to the Paris Agreement. Nonetheless, its focus on bottom-up commitments and the lack of legally binding emission reduction targets – the lack of a substantial supranational institutional fundament – makes it much more vulnerable to changes in the domestic politics of its members. As Brexit and the election and following policies of the Trump administration show – and not to imagine what would have happened if Le Pen would have won the French election – the political climate can change rapidly and fundamentally.

A regime that mainly strives to include as many participants as possible and that places all of its hopes on public pressure and the goodwill of its members might not be enough to retain progressive climate action. Especially as soon as other, seemingly more urgent and costly political crises emerge. Just think of another financial crisis, a major war in the Middle East or continued terrorist attacks. Finally, the announcement of the US to walk away from Paris could also spark renewed skepticism in other countries and could be used as an excuse for dropping out themselves or for not pursuing domestic climate action.

Due to a cunning paragraph in the agreement, it will not be until the end of Trumps term in office that the US can finally withdraw – enough time for the political climate to change again.

Having said that, even though more bindingness and a greater supranational component would have been welcome, Paris still can become a success. Due to a cunning paragraph in the agreement, it will not be until the end of Trumps term in office that the US can finally withdraw – enough time for the political climate to change again. Even right now, many US states, cities and businesses have announced to continue their commitment to climate protection, and the majority of the population remains in favour of progressive climate action. Moreover, the publicly voiced commitment of most other key signatories, not least the formerly reluctant China and India, to stick to the agreement despite the US withdrawal allows for some hope.

Trumps decision could very well bind the remaining members together and fuel renewed leadership on climate protection. Yet words are cheap and it remains to be seen whether the current progressive rhetoric will eventually be followed by deeds when it comes to implementing costly measures. In the end, the open nature of the agreement is a double-edged sword that could pave the way for all-encompassing climate action – or itself become a bunch of hot air.


1. See for instance: 

Ahrens, Bettina (2017) ‘The Solidarisation of International Society – The EU in the Global Climate Change Regime. Paper presented at the 58th ISA Annual Convention, 22-25 February 2017, Baltimore.

Davis Cross, Mai’a K. (2017) ‘The EU’s Green Diplomacy. Paper presented at the GLOBUS Conference on Conceptualising Global Justice, 19-20 January, Oslo.

Published June 9, 2017 12:13 PM - Last modified June 9, 2017 12:13 PM
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