On December 12, 2015, 195 nations unanimously endorsed a new global climate agreement in Paris at the conclusion of the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21). An English version of the Paris Agreement can be accessed online at: http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09r01.pdf. Although the agreement had been widely anticipated for some time, it is a historic achievement because it commits virtually every country in the world for the first time to take action to control emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs). While it is well recognized that the intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) each country made will not, taken together, be sufficient to meet the global target of keeping the rise in global temperatures well below 2 degrees Celsius, countries intend to strengthen their commitments every five years and a robust system of transparency and monitoring will be established to measure progress.
Tomorrow the global blog “The Conversation” will feature a short article I was asked to write, which is entitled “Promises, Promises: How Legally Durable Are the Pledges the U.S. Made at the Paris Climate Conference?” (http://theconversation.com/promises-promises-how-legally-durable-are-obamas-climate-pledges-51786). The article reviews why the U.S. emissions reduction pledge made in Paris is on solid legal ground. It notes that unless a president opposed to climate action is elected in 2016, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse the U.S. commitment. For decades the principal argument that opponents of U.S. action have used is that the U.S. should not act to control its GHG emissions because other countries like China are not required to do so. Now that virtually every country in the world finally has agreed to control its emissions, it would be the height of folly for the U.S. to step back on its pledge.
I was among the estimated 40,000 people who were in Paris last week for the COP-21 negotiations. Security had been tightened in the wake of the November 13th terrorist attacks there, but not to ridiculous levels. On December 4 I participated in the inaugural Climate Law and Governance Day at La Sorbonne Law School. Mary Robinson, former premier of Ireland, gave a wonderful opening keynote. The conference was held near the Place du Pantheon where eight, 11-ton pieces of glacial ice had been placed to make a statement on climate change. The ice came from Greenland and was arranged by artists in the shape of a clock. On the left bank of the Seine Greenpeace, to protest Japan’s continued whaling, had erected a life size, 110-foot replica of the enormous whale Bluebelle that had been captured in the South Atlantic a century ago.
In honor of COP-21 the “Scintillance” display of lights along the Champs-Élysées was powered by renewable energy from a solar display, a wind turbine, and electricity generated by humans riding stationary bicycles, walking on treadmills or swinging on swings along the avenue. On December 7 I attended a conference on “Women on the Front Lines of Climate Change,” sponsored by the Women’s Earth & Climate Action Network International. Speakers gave their perspectives on how climate change was affecting women throughout the world. When one speaker decried the fact that the climate negotiations were dominated by “old white men in business suits,” I looked around the room and discovered that I probably was the only old white man in a business suit among the 150 people present. Another speaker stated that the group’s purpose was “not to put down men, but to elevate women.” I hope to have a folder of photos from my Paris trip available on this website by the time I make my next blog post.
One of the most important factors in the success of the Paris negotiations was the climate agreement between China and the U.S. announced in November 2014. Both countries, who are the two largest emitters of GHGs, coordinated their negotiating stances, and when they differed a phone call last week from President Obama to Xi Jinping helped smooth things out. Last March when I had the privilege of delivering the annual Wallace Stegner Lecture at the University of Utah I entitled it “Against All Odds: Why America’s Century-Old Quest for Clean Air May Usher in a New Era of Global Environmental Cooperation.” The thrust of my argument was that China so admires U.S. technology and its success in controlling air pollution, which remains an incredibly serious problem there, that it set the stage for the two countries cooperating on environmental issues which could help produce a breakthrough in Paris. The University of Utah Press is in the final stages of editing my lecture for publication and its basic argument holds up well in light of the Paris Agreement.
Even as the nations of the world were negotiating a historic climate agreement, unbelievably bad air pollution blotted out the skies in New Dehli and Beijing. Both countries imposed red alert, emergency measures in response to the pollution. These included shutting down schools and businesses, urging people to stay indoors, and banning half the vehicle fleet from driving on alternate days. These “airpocalypses” have occurred before, but because residents of Beijing thought progress was being made in reducing air pollution it particularly undermined public confidence there.
After returning to D.C. from Paris, I presented a day-long environmental workshop on Thursday December 10 to a group of 20 judges from the High People’s Court of Jiangsu Province. The workshop, which was sponsored by the University of Maryland College Park’s Office of China Affairs, was held in College Park. In the morning I provided a basic introduction to environmental law and in the afternoon I focused on who can sue to protect the environment and issues of environmental standing. Jiangsu is the province where a court last year convicted 14 people of criminal offenses and fined six companies $26 million for discharging 25,000 tones of chemical waste into two rivers. This was believed at the time to be the largest fine ever levied in China for environmental violations.