By Joy Hyvarinen

Many have welcomed the new Paris Agreement on climate change, but there is also recognition of its weaknesses. The new treaty includes an aim of holding the global temperature increase to well below 2° C and also to “pursue efforts” to limit the increase to 1.5 ° C. However, current emission reduction commitments do not even come close to holding warming below 2° C, let alone 1.5 ° C. It is increasingly urgent to achieve rapid and deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions.

The Paris Agreement is based on the idea of countries strengthening their emission reductions (their “nationally determined contributions”) with five-year intervals, but it is far from clear if this will happen. Despite the successful adoption of the Paris treaty, fundamental questions remain the same. Stepping up efforts to limit climate change will still need to involve tackling deep-seated differences between countries that have been at the centre of the international negotiations for decades.

The ultimate objective of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (and any related legal instrument, such as the Paris Agreement) is to stabilize “… greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. …” (UNFCCC Article 2). While “dangerous” has never been defined, either by UNFCCC parties or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), vulnerable countries have argued for a long time that the 2° C goal is not safe, and that it should be replaced by 1.5 ° C or lower.

Poor and vulnerable countries that have contributed little to causing climate change are expected to suffer its worst impacts. Human rights, such as the right to food, are being compromised. Some countries expect to lose territory due to sea-level rise – some small island states could disappear.

Adaptation is one response to climate change, but some of the negative impacts of climate change are beyond adaptation. “Loss and damage” has emerged as a priority issue in the international negotiations, with countries that are likely to be damaged calling for compensation and help. The Paris Agreement includes loss and damage (Article 8), but according to the accompanying decision by the Conference of the Parties, this does not provide a basis for liability or compensation (paragraph 52).

Emissions are growing in developing countries, but the UNFCCC recognizes that developed countries bear a historical responsibility for climate change because of their past emissions. It requires them to take the lead in combating climate change.

There are deeply held, long-standing differences between developing and developed countries in the negotiations, with the former calling on the latter to take stronger action to reduce emissions and provide more support to developing countries, and the latter calling on developing countries to do more to limit emissions.

A fair and effective response that limits climate change, protects the vulnerable and minimizes unavoidable loss and damage will require global cooperation on an unprecedented scale. Somehow, future negotiations related to the Paris Agreement will need to find a way forward that makes it possible to overcome the deep differences between countries and achieve this. It may require new approaches, including new legal solutions.

Learning from other areas could help. In particular, learning from transitional justice could help to identify new ways of addressing difficult questions that remain at the heart of the international negotiations and overcoming long-standing and bitter differences between countries. Global climate issues are not in the same category as the terrible circumstances where transitional justice processes have become necessary to enable societies that have experienced violence and gross human rights abuses to find some degree of reconciliation and move forward. However, there are parallels. In the climate change context there is a need to address questions of justice and what many perceive to be historical wrongs, and construct an approach that makes effective global cooperation and rapid emission reductions possible.

Climate change is impacting human rights. Questions of potential liability are coming to the fore with climate-related loss and damage. These are among the areas where the global climate response could be informed by lessons from transitional justice.There seems to be growing interest in exploring this possibility. For example, the topic is included in a series of papers on climate justice commissioned by the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice.

An exciting project by Climate Strategies,led by Sonja Klinsky, is currently exploring what international climate policy debates could learn from peace and reconciliation processes, in particular in relation to addressing tensions between past-oriented concerns about historical responsibility and future-oriented desires for deeper climate mitigation.

About the author

Joy Hyvarinen is Adviser to VERTIC. This blog reflects her personal views.