Is it such a bad thing that the UN climate agreement isn’t legally binding? And how does climate change affect gender equality, and migration? Now the dust has started to settle on the COP 21 climate summit, Fannie Delavelle looks more deeply into some of the issues that were glossed over by the headlines.
- Gender equality
As a result of intense civil society mobilisation, the key question of gender was addressed in the final text.
Women are disproportionately impacted by climate change in developing countries, partly as a result of their pre-existing socio-economic vulnerabilities. The mention of gender in the agreement, while not legally binding, goes a long way in ensuring the mainstreaming of gender issues in climate change projects and in spurring interest and investment in gender specific initiatives such as those conducted by UN WOMEN.
This inclusion is in large part the result of extensive civil society outreach during the negotiations. Most notably, the draft agreement highlights the importance of promoting gender balance and commits to establishing a new committee to facilitate implementation and promote compliance. This represents quite an achievement considering the lack of women in leadership positions at the conference – only 26-33% of heads of national delegations were female. As Mary Robinson, the former UN human rights chief and Ireland’s first female president, declared in an interview: “This is a very male world [at the conference]. When it is a male world, you have male priorities”.
Migration is an increasingly key issue in today’s world, in many cases intrinsically linked to climate change. In Central America, many communities are being forced to leave their homes as a result of sudden or slow onset disasters, and the links between security challenges and natural resource scarcity in the Middle East have often been highlighted.
Including migration in the text was an important step forward to foster decisive international cooperation to develop a legal status for climate migrants, and to improve the management of migration flows -topics which have so far proved controversial -. While challenges remain, COP21 provides a stepping stone to leverage concrete solutions for climate migrants.
- Voluntary does not mean ineffective
One of the major points of contention highlighted by civil society groups following the negotiations concerns the voluntary nature of the text, particularly regarding mitigation efforts by developed countries. The last-minute replacement of “developed country Parties shall continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction target” by “should” in Article 4 Paragraph 4, as a result of United States pressure, deprived the text of its binding nature.
This substitution, which was undertaken minutes before the text’s adoption, and subtly mentioned by French Foreign Minister Fabius as a “typo” made by sleep-deprived UNFCCC employees, entirely modified the nature of the agreement. While one might argue that this outcome was the result of a last minute U.S. negotiating tactic rather than a typo, I am of the opinion that the agreement’s voluntary nature is less of a challenge than it has been portrayed.
Firstly, a legally binding agreement would likely have had to be ratified by the U.S. Senate and other national assemblies. This would have represented a major obstacle for its implementation, considering the politically charged nature of the issue in the U.S. and the continuing strength of climate deniers in policy-making circles (56% of the conservative Republican electorate say there is no solid evidence of climate change).
However, the power of shaming and social pressure should not be underestimated. A large number of international agreements rely on countries’ desire to ensure good relations with their counterparts. These simple rules of social interaction guarantee the respect of international agreements by each party. Furthermore, the transparency and reporting requirements set out in the text provide another tool to ensure implementation: civil society, through public opinion, will become an enforcer of the agreement, offering an effective vehicle toward compliance.
Finally, the voluntary nature of the agreement is likely to encourage the adoption of more ambitious national targets over time. Negotiators of an international agreement are often faced with a trade-off between its ambition and its legal strength: the more binding the agreement, the less likely negotiators are to make ambitious pledges. In the case of climate change, privileging ambition over legal strength will allow for a ripple effect to take place: as innovation in clean technologies intensifies, and as green policies such as the deployment of infrastructure for electric cars prove successful and profitable, stakeholders will be more likely to regularly ratchet up –and attain- their pledges over time, thereby reaching a more ambitious outcome than would have been achieved through a binding mechanism.
Fannie Delavelle graduated from a dual Master’s degree in International Political Economy between the LSE and Sciences Po Paris. Following a placement at the European Commission, she was appointed trade attachée at the Embassy of France in Washington DC in 2015. LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/fanniedelavelle”