COP21 (Paris 2015): a Legally Binding Treaty?

International climate change negotiations began in 1976, but the Rio talks in 1992 — the Earth Summit — established the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change‎. 

Current agreements focus on the actions of advanced economies, but not on developing countries – some of which have now become major emitters of greenhouse gases. As such, during the 2011 Climate Change Conference held in Durban, South Africa, it was agreed that a “treaty or agreed outcome with legal force” should be reached amongst 196 signatories (195 countries + the European Union).

The upcoming 21st Session of the Convention – known as COP21 or Paris 2015 – will be held from November 30th to December 11th 2015. The goal is to establish, for the first time, a universal agreement to combat anthropogenic climate change.

If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, we will pass the threshold beyond which global warming becomes catastrophic and irreversible. That threshold is estimated as a temperature rise of 2ºC (3.6ºF) above pre-industrial levels, and on current trajectories we are heading for a rise of about 5C. That may not sound like much, but the temperature difference between today’s world and the last ice age was about 5ºC, so seemingly small changes in temperature can mean big differences for the Earth. – Fiona Harvey, Environmental Journalist writing for the Guardian


A working group of the UN Climate Change Conference held in Bonn, Germany earlier this summer to prepare for COP21

In the lead up to the Summit, governments around the world will submit their mitigation goals (emissions reduction) and climate change adaptation goals. Known as “intended nationally determined contributions” or INDCs, these goals are drafted at national level. For example, the United States is aiming to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 26–28% below 2005 levels by 2025. By contrast, the European Union hopes to reach a target of 40% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions when compared to 1990.

As delegations gear up to attend Paris 2015, it is important to remember that Durban set out no concrete specifics as to the legal form or enforceability of such an agreement. The European Union (amongst others) insists that the outcome of Paris 2015 is a set of legally binding targets, whereby countries will be held legally accountable to their INDCs. On the other hand, the US special envoy on climate change, Todd Stern, insists that a ‘hybrid approach’ to legal enforcement offers the best chance of striking a deal agreeable to all.

Non-profit organisations such as Green Alliance, Greenpeace, the RSPB, and the WWF have also weighed in on the importance of reaching a binding agreement. A legally enforceable treaty that works across borders would allow governments and corporate entities to rely on the promises made by others, which encourages both compliance and co-operation.

Polar Bear Cub studying his reflection in Norway (x)

Polar Bear Cub studying his reflection in Norway (x)

However, fixating on the creation of a legally binding deal may inadvertently dissuade countries from submitting ambitious INDC targets. This is because, practically speaking, international treaties – like any contract – are entered into when the individual parties fundamentally believe they will be able to deliver on their obligations. In order to verify such compliance – ie “promise keeping” – formal scrutiny of progress made on emissions reduction will be required. This would require nearly 200 different countries – each with their own constitutions, electoral processes, and economic realities – to agree on the requisite transparency, accountability and punitive (sanctioning) mechanisms.

Would removing the goal of reaching a strict, legally binding treaty allow negotiators the flexibility they need to encourage practicable, tangible action? Might a bottom-up or grassroots approach – fuelled and directed by industry and NGO players alike – make the most meaningful progress?

Spokane sues Monsanto

Earlier this month [August 2015] Spokane, Washington USA launched a lawsuit against the giant agrochemical corporation MONSANTO. I went to university not far from Spokane, so I wanted to do some research on this issue, which is quite literally close to home.


Spokane is the second largest city in Washington State. It sits near the border with Idaho, and is about 140km south of Canada.

Monsanto made and sold Polychlorinated Biphenyl (PCB) primarily under the name Aroclor, which was used in paint, hydraulic fluids, plastics, inks, lubricants and other items. The company was the sole manufacturer of PCBs in the United States from 1935 until 1979, when Congress banned the manufacture and use of PCBs under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

As a top company in the Chemicals industry, Monsanto specialize in Agriculture manufacturing products including herbicides, pesticides and crop seeds. Their corporate slogan is

As a top company in the Chemicals industry, Monsanto specialize in Agriculture manufacturing products including herbicides, pesticides and crop seeds. Their corporate slogan is “Growth for a Better World.”

In its suit filed in US District Court, The City of Spokane claims, inter alia, that Monsanto has known that Polychlorinated Biphenyl (PCB) chemicals were dangerously toxic and were accumulating in the Spokane River’s water, sediments and fish.

Read more…

Seawalls along Sensitive Coasts: What is Shoreline Armoring?

Earlier this summer, three conservation groups in Washington State joined together to launch a legal battle in an attempt to change how a federal agency regulates the construction of seawalls, bulkheads and other coastal barriers. Having spent about ten years living in Seattle, I wanted to learn more about the impact that such seawalls could have on the environment, and the legal reasoning behind this recent campaign.

Environmental Issue:  “Shoreline armoring” is the practice of modifying marine shorelines with rocks or other materials. By building these armoring structures to hold back the sea and prevent the loss of sediment, coastal land is stabilised and both residential and commercial infrastructures are protected. While this practice can help to prevent erosion, conservation groups claim that it’s destroying Puget Sound habitat.

coastal armoring, marine, conservation, Whidbey Island, Washington, Beach

An example of coastal armoring on Whidbey Island, WA.

Rock and concrete walls have already been erected along about one-quarter of Puget Sound’s 2,500 miles of shorelines, with more than 1 mile of armor being added each year. By altering the geologic processes that build and maintain beaches, bulkheads and other types of sea walls impact erosion patterns and hydrology, and reduce the availability of large wood. Over time, these barriers diminish the availability and condition of key shoreline habitats, turning sandy beaches into rocky areas that aren’t welcoming to forage fish and other species.

Legal Argument:   The Clean Water Act provides federal protection for marine environments up to the true high tide line. It also mandates that a permit be obtained from The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (CoE) for any construction in, over or under  regulated waters.

However, most of the sea barriers in Puget Sound have been constructed without CoE permits – because the CoE asserts that its jurisdiction only goes to the “mean” high water line. As such, these projects are never reviewed by federal fisheries biologists to determine whether they harm species – such as orca whales and Chinook salmon – which are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Across many shorelines, the difference between the tides – as illustrated above – can be several feet of tidal elevation. On a gently sloping beach, this could mean that there are huge areas of intertidal habitat which should be regulated and protected under the law, but are not.

This discrepancy has prompted Sound Action, Friends of the San Juans, and Washington Environmental Council – with legal representation by EarthJustice – to petition the CoE to revise its jurisdiction. Hopefully, doing so will result in better environmental and wildlife protection for the Puget Sound.

Further Reading