Will the Paris Agreement Succeed?

Will the Paris Agreement Succeed?

My favourite clause of the Paris Agreement is article 7.5 which runs as follows:

"Parties acknowledge that adaptation action should follow a country-driven, gender-responsive, participatory and fully transparent approach, taking into consideration vulnerable groups, communities and ecosystems, and should be based on and guided by the best available science and, as appropriate, traditional knowledge, knowledge of indigenous peoples and local knowledge systems, with a view to integrating adaptation into relevant socioeconomic and environmental policies and actions, where appropriate."

Wow! With prose like that even a 31 page document can be made to feel like endless blather and indeed the agreement has been criticised for being little more than a pious statement of generalities. The trouble is that, apart from article 2.1 which sets the objectives as holding global temperatures to well below 2% above preindustrial levels and making efforts to keep below 1.5%, the agreement is really just a framework within which the parties will decide on their own contributions in limiting emissions or in providing finance or technology. Yes, there are some encouraging signs. For a start there is some ratcheting up. Article 4.3 indicates that the successive plans published by a country will represent a progression with the requirements getting tougher as progress is made. Then there is an acceptance that Developed countries must provide financial resources to assist Developing countries and provision for the making available of technology; but again there are no figures. Is this really going to be enough?

It is hard to say, but the agreement is certainly a start and the reason why it may lead somewhere is its focus on disclosure. Article 13 which deals with transparency is among the most important. That provides for each country to supply regular information on progress on emissions, on its contribution to financial, technical and capacity building support for Developing countries, etc. Much of the information will be filed in a public registry. There will also be a general review of progress, "a global stock take", every five years starting from 2023. That will shine a bright light on who is doing what and the progress which is, or is not, being made; something which will hopefully spur the parties to the agreement to make good their pledges.

It was the famous American judge, Louis Brandeis, who said that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and exposing the environmental efforts of different countries to the public eye will make the shortcomings in those efforts stand out. It becomes a game of name and shame. You can only put real pressure on countries to up their game if it is very clear indeed when they fail to do so. That is why transparency is so important. If it is backed by sufficient public concern it may yet prove a potent weapon.

The proposal that Developed countries should subsidise the efforts of Developing countries shows a sensible internationalism. There are issues which are simply too big to be left to national legislatures so that a broader approach is needed. You will see same sort of thinking in the suggestion that members of the Schengen group should have to accept assistance from an EU Border force if their borders with non EU countries are too porous. In each case the issue is simply too important to be allowed to go wrong.

There are a growing number of areas where issues need to be dealt with on an international scale, issues where the parochialism of the past will no longer suffice. That is simple consequence of the advances in communications and science which mean that what is done in one country increasingly affects its neighbours. The problem is, however, where to stop. Start giving bureaucrats transnational powers and they usually run amok with them. Give them a chance and the minutiae of all our lives will be dictated from either the UN or Brussels.

For an illustration of the problem here just look at the tendency for transnational bodies to extend their remit. Take the decision by the European Court of Human Rights that prisoners should have votes. The Court had to choose whether to make that a human rights issue or to leave the decision to individual countries' domestic law. You would have thought that they would have taken the second course. After all, by denying prisoners their liberty one is doing far more to their human rights than one is doing by denying them their votes. But, no, the Court decided to go head-to-head with the British government about it (although it now looks as if the judgement will never be enforced). Why? What is the point? Is there anything behind this other than the Court's wish to extend its own influence? The European Union has form here too, often using the need for a level marketplace to justify its involvement in issues which are really a matter for the member state. That is one of the reasons why it is so disliked.

The operation of the mechanisms set out in the Paris Agreement is to be supervised by the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. There will be plenty of admin. Quite apart from the five yearly global stocktakes, the various commitments by the signatories will need to be analysed and assessed. That will involve both technicians and politicians. If this process is to command the respect of the participants, and in particular the Developing nations who are understandably nervous that a door is being shut to their prosperity which was not there when the Developed nations were at a similar stage, it is crucially important that there should be no mission creep. This framework is being set up for one purpose and as soon as the suggestion that it extend its brief, so seductive to the bureaucratic ear, begins to be heeded it will lose its authority.

The success or failure of the processes set out in the Paris Agreement depends on how well those in charge can be kept focussed on their objective.


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