US President Barack Obama generated some excitement at the climate change conference in Paris yesterday, with his remarks that at least a part of the agreement that is being negotiated could be legally binding on countries.
Whether the climate agreement under negotiation should be legally binding or not is one of the most contentious issues here and the United States is very clear that it does not want the outcome from Paris to be legally binding. In fact, US Secretary of State John Kerry had last month made that explicit when he said the agreement to come out of Paris would “definitely not be a treaty”.
Obama has not overturned the US position with the remarks he made just before leaving Paris after attending the conference. His prescription was limited to only the process of transparency, and a periodic review of the targets each country has set for itself.
The Paris agreement is unlikely to have any emission reduction targets for countries, unlike the Kyoto Protocol that it seeks to replace. These targets are in the climate action plans that every country has submitted, called the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs. As of now, the INDCs are unlikely to become a part of the agreement though there may be a reference to them in the agreement.
The INDCs are supposed to be reviewed every five or ten years — another issue of contention — so that the world can assess whether the actions taken are consistent with what is required to be done. The process to be followed for this review, and whether it should be differentiated for developed and developing countries as proposed by India, or same for all countries is a subject being debated.
It is this process that Obama wants to be legally-binding.
So what Obama is suggesting is that every country must be legally bound to participate in this review – there is disagreement even on the word `review’ and other words like `assessments’ are being suggested.
This formulation is very different from what many other countries advocate. The European Union, for example, wants the entire agreement to be legally-binding on countries. The US was amongst the countries that negotiated the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 but its Senate refused to ratify it.
A successor agreement would face a similar fate in the US House/Senate.
India says it can live with either formulation though it says the agreement would not be effective if governments do not give them legal backing within their own countries to enforce it.