Event Recap

By Gosia Labno, EPIC Correspondent

On December 12, 2015, 195 countries agreed to a global pact to reduce their emissions and work towards containing climate change to 2 degrees Celsius. To give an insider’s look at how the agreement happened, the U.S. State Department’s lead climate lawyer, Sue Biniaz, spoke to a group of students, faculty, and members of the community at a lecture on January 28th. The event was the first in a new series of lectures jointly sponsored by EPIC and the University of Chicago Law School.

Biniaz began her talk by giving some background on the path that led to Paris, namely, four critical instruments: the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992), the Kyoto Protocol (1997), the Copenhagen Accord (2009), and lastly, the Durban platform (2011).

The Framework Convention “set out the objective of avoiding dangerous manmade interference with the climate,” explained Biniaz. The Kyoto Protocol set legally-binding emissions targets but did not apply them to all parties, and the U.S. did not participate. Because most parties wanted an agreement that would include the U.S. and China, signifying a legal symmetry between developed and developing countries, parties met for the Copenhagen Accord. While most considered this a failure, Biniaz considers the result significant, as it marked the first time that countries agreed on the 2-degree temperature goal, over 80 countries made emissions commitments, and President Obama helped bring about a transparency regime and extensive financial pledges. This was followed by the Durban platform, brought about the mandate for the Paris agreement.

The Paris negotiations dealt with major issues that derived from each of these agreements. But separate themes also arose during the talks. Of these, Biniaz highlighted the push for greater ambitions, the differentiation between developed and developing countries, and the legal force of the agreement.

“The Paris negotiations brought forth the idea for more ambitious targets, deriving from greater climate awareness,” said Biniaz. Because it was hard to make the agreement overly ambitious and promote participation, the U.S. came up with the idea of “nationally determined commitments,” which allowed each country to come up with its own contribution prior to the meeting. By Paris, more than 180 countries announced their targets.

A longer-term goal focused on, for example, temperature or emissions, was also needed to increase ambition over time, as well as the mechanisms to achieve this goal. The result was a non-legally binding part in the agreement that required progress, called “no backsliding.”

Next, there needed to be some distinction between developed and developing countries without distinctions in legal obligation. “As long as there is no distinction between countries in the legal aspect the U.S. could accept it,” Biniaz said. This led to most commitments applying to all parties, with soft distinctions between developed and developing countries. For example, developed countries carried the most financial obligations, thus they wanted the donor pool to increase over time.

Because some countries wanted legally-binding emissions targets, she explained, New Zealand put forward a proposal that combined non-legally binding targets with binding transparency and reporting. Ultimately, the U.S. supported this “hybrid type of proposals combining non-binding targets, but binding participation and transparency,” Biniaz said, noting that, “”Most countries were actually quite surprised at the commitments made during Paris.”


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