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International Law and Climate Change: Post-Paris Challenges

On April 5, 2015, the Canadian Council on International Law, in collaboration with the Munk School of Global Affairs, held an afternoon event entitled “International Law and Climate Change: Post-Paris Challenges”. The event was aimed at discussing key legal and public policy issues surrounding the recent Paris Agreement on climate change. Overall, the expert-speakers that composed the panel provided an interesting mix-and-match of views, perspectives, and personalities on the topic of international law and climate change. A brief summary of some of the key points discussed during the event follows immediately below.

After a warm opening by panel moderator Douglas Forsythe (Treaty Law Division, Global Affairs Canada), Jutta Brunnée (Faculty of Law, University of Toronto) and Dr. Meinhard Doelle (Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University) opened the afternoon with an interesting “tag-team” style discussion on five critical questions surrounding the Paris Agreement, a discussion that was also aimed at providing the audience with an overview of the main features of the Paris Agreement. Perhaps most notable among the five questions tackled by Jutta and Dr. Doelle was the question: “is the Paris Agreement an achievement?”

Jutta Brunnée answered this question in the affirmative, emphasizing the complexity of the issues involved in negotiating such a large international agreement, especially that of “common but differentiated” responsibilities among States, which she described as being the most contentious issue surrounding the Agreement. She also pointed out to the difficulty of negotiating an international agreement between 193 countries from approximately 160,000 square brackets (brackets denoting areas of disagreement), to 48,000, and finally down to 0.

Dr. Doelle approached the same question with nuance. Pointing out that mitigation commitments in the Paris Agreement are not legally binding, his first response was that the Paris Agreement was not an achievement. Drawing a comparison with the substantive standards and adjudicative process under the WTO regime, Dr. Doelle stated that there was lots of room to be critical about the Paris Agreement. Conversely, and in the same line as Jutta, he stated that in comparison to a “realistic alternative”, it is hard to reach the conclusion that the Paris Agreement was not an achievement. He stated that given the political and legal context surrounding the Paris Agreement, it's the best hope we have. In his opinion, the Paris Agreement puts pressure on countries to increase their ambitions, and to reach clear long-term goals relative to climate change.

Jutta and Dr. Doelle’s discussion was followed by Matthew Hoffman and Laura Zizzo’s discussions on the role of subnational and private actors, a theme that was nicely tied into the event’s overarching theme of international law. Matthew Hoffman was quick to point that we now live in a bottom-up world that is witnessing an expansion of authoritative actors, notably cities: “Cities act while nations talk”. In his opinion, international law is a facilitative solution to climate change, not a solution maker. The upswing in the role of subnational actors like cities and provinces has brought about a change in the entire mode of governing climate change. According to Matthew, that national actors monitor, steer, and support, while cities act, is best evidenced in Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). His final view in terms of what the Paris Agreement signals in relation to climate change: “international law will orchestrate, not regulate”.

Finally, before opening the floor to questions, Laura offered a practical viewpoint on how international law, climate change, and the Paris Agreement tie into the private sector and private actors. Perhaps most notable in this regard, Laura highlighted that in a recent letter from the world’s largest investor to CEOs of S&P 500 companies, the term “Paris Agreement” was specifically referenced. This, in addition to increasing references to climate change in board meetings, shareholder resolutions, and corporate disclosures, clearly signals the growing importance climate change plays in the investment community, and vice versa. In further support of this viewpoint, Laura also alluded to a recent ruling by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, in which Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest publicly traded oil producer, was told that it must put to its shareholders voting proposals on climate change.

Panel discussions were followed by questions from the floor. As a last question, panelists were asked to provide their views and comments on the risks and opportunities in the Paris Agreement. On this point, there seemed to be broad consensus among all panelists that we must not be overwhelmed by the size of the task at hand, and that time is of the essence when addressing global climate change.

François LeSieur


Canadian Council on International Law

Munk School of Global Affairs

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