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The Climate Change Challenge

 Today’s most pervasive challenge to the environment – and consequently, to human rights’ protection and sustainable development’s achievement – stems from climate change. This global phenomenon indicates changes in the usual climate of the planet, including temperature, precipitation and wind pattern. It includes the so-called global warming: the progressive rise of the Earth’s mean temperature mainly as a result of economic activities (energy, industry, transport and land use) which, since the industrial revolution, have considerably increased concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere. So far, as outlined in the 2018Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), these gases have already triggered a warming effect on the Earth by a mean average temperature of about 1°C and, as their emission and accumulation persist, there is strong likelihood that global warming will cross the 1.5°C benchmark between 2030 and 2050. By moving closer to these degrees, humanity has already started to face the deleterious impacts of global warming, such as more intense and frequent natural disasters (ex. hurricanes, droughts, storms, floods, forest fires etc.) and their severe consequences on food security, water supplies and ecosystems. 

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Landmark International Climate Change Agreements

 International climate diplomacy can be said to have started in 1992 when, at the Rio Earth Summit, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted. It is globally recognized as the first step in addressing the climate change problem and, given that 197 countries have ratified it, it has near-universal membership. Entered into force in 1994, the UNFCCC aims to achieve the stabilization of GHGs in the atmosphere at a level that “would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system, within a timeframe sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally, to ensure that food production is not threatened, and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner” (art.2). To this purpose, the agreement encourages all nations to take steps to stabilize GHG emissions, establishing however the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”(CBDRRC – art.3)[1] and committing developed countries to assist developing ones in coping with climate impacts. Indeed, in line with the human rights obligations related to climate change, the UNFCCC is built on the principle of international cooperation in mitigation and adaptation measures, on the special consideration to be given to those countries most vulnerable to climate change as well as on the promotion of public access to climate information and of public participation in climate change decision-making processes. However, similarly to the other COP (Conferences of the Parties), it does not make any explicit reference to the grievance mechanisms for those harmed by climate change impacts or responses.

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 The UNFCCC was followed by the Kyoto Protocol which was adopted at the COP 3 in 1997, coming into force in 2005 and nowadays counting 192 Parties. It can be defined as putting into practice the UNFCCC and as the world’s first greenhouse gas emissions reduction treaty. Indeed, while it does not add new commitments for developing countries, the agreement only binds developed countries to reduce GHGs emissions by deploying domestic policies and mitigation measures. However, despite being consistent with the CBDRRC principle and thus putting the heaviest burden on those countries most responsible for high levels of GHGs in the atmosphere, the set targets have not been fully fulfilled and, instead of stabilizing or declining, global CO2 emissions increased over 50% between 1990 and 2012.[2]  Given this state of affairs, UNFCCC Parties launched new talks at COP 13 in Bali in 2007 to find an agreement to provide UNFCCC effective implementation. This agreement was reached at COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009 and it was successful in setting the goal of limiting global temperature increase to 2°C and the goal of mobilizing $100 billion a year by 2020 for developing countries. However, due to the Parties’ inability to overcome their differences, the Copenhagen Accord remained only a political agreement until the COP 16 in Cancun in 2010 where its essential elements were effectively formalized under the Cancun Agreement. The latter, together with the talks launched at the COP 17 in Durban, have been regarded as temporary steps on the road towards a legally binding successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which came to be the Paris Agreement. 


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The Paris Agreement was adopted at COP 21 in Paris in 2015, entering into force in late 2016 and counting nowadays 187 ratifications. Building upon the UNFCCC, this milestone agreement aims to accelerate the actions for a sustainable low-carbon development in the post2020 period – following the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol (the Doha Amendment). The agreement has the objective to limit the global temperature rise under 2°C (compared to preindustrial levels) by the end of the century, leaving the door open to extend this target to 1.5°C (art.2). However, it can be labelled as a hybrid between the top-down Kyoto approach and the bottom-up Copenhagen and Cancun approach: while it establishes common binding procedural commitments for all countries (such as reporting regularly on their emissions), it makes them decide their “nationally determined contributions” (NDC) every five years (as a mitigation measure set in art.4). In addition to call for speeding up the technological transfer to developing countries (art.9-10), the agreement also includes the possibility of an international transfer of mitigation results (international emissions trading, art.6) and urges all Parties to enhance their adaptive capacity (by formulating and implementing National Adaptation Plans as set in art.7). Last but not least, as a proof of its consistency with the human rights system related to climate change, the Paris Agreement also calls for climate change education, training, public awareness, public participation and public access to information (art.12).  By the way, the implementation of these commitments was strengthened through the adoption of the Katowice Climate Package which, approved at the Katowice Climate Summit COP 24 in 2018, sets a variety of guidelines to operationalize the Paris Agreement’s climate change regime. As a proof of their relevance, these implementation guidelines have been further developed at the UN Climate Change Conference COP 25 in December 2019 held in Madrid (under the Presidency of the Government of Chile).  

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Current challenges

 The short overview of the international agreements dealing with climate change brings into sharp relief the common principles they are based on, such as equity, burden-sharing, precautionary approach, international cooperation, human rights protection in order to achieve climate-resilient development paths. They prove that consensus on climate change challenges has been reached and that there is now state practise and opinio juris to confirm environmental protection as part of the customary international law. Undeniably, the above-mentioned agreements have made progress in easing the dichotomy between economic growth and environmental protection, setting global agendas, facilitating joined-up thinking on climate change, providing global partnership by making the process more inclusive. Nevertheless, they suffer from a discrepancy between ambitions and concrete achievements. As a proof, their enforcing mechanisms (ex. reporting, verification) remain still weak and national plans keep being far from ambitious. Indeed, the world is nowadays on track towards a global temperature rise of 3°C – exactly double the objective set in the 2015 Paris Agreement – and economic and population growth continue to be the most significant drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion. As a result, oceans are further acidifying, ice caps are melting, crops are becoming less nutritious, desertification is spreading and soil is degrading. 

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After five years from setting the Paris Agreement, 2020 represents a critical year to address climate change and to make significant progress towards the 17 Sustainable Development Goals set by the 2030 Agenda. It is now time for nations to submit their new or revised national climate action plans in line with the target of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. As emphasised in the 2018 IPCC’s Report, stabilizing the global mean temperature at this target, rather than at 2°C, is reported to lower the impacts on terrestrial, freshwater and coastal ecosystems and to retain more of their services to humans on health livelihoods, human security, water supply and economic growth. As a result, limiting global warming to this temperature, is much more likely to avoid the climate change impacts on sustainable development, poverty eradication and inequalities reduction.  Yet, most recently the COP26 – which was scheduled to take place in Glasgow in November 2020 – has been postponed to 2021 as a result of the current Covid-19 pandemic. However, the economic downturn triggered by the Coronavirus pandemic should not entail the suspension of international climate action. As emphasised by the UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa, “COVID19 is the most urgent threat facing humanity today, but we cannot forget that climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity over the long term.”  In this regard, past experience suggests that although greenhouse gases emissions decline during economic crises, they are very likely to surge soon after and it is crucial to act now to reverse this trajectory. Despite the fact that Covid-19 outbreak determined a slowdown in climate negotiations, this arduous period may be taken as an opportunity for nations “to recover better, to include the most vulnerable in those plans, and as a chance to shape the 21st century economy in ways that are clean, green, healthy, just, safe and more resilient.” To put it differently, this may be the moment to finally turn “good intentions” and “written commitments” into tangible and concrete deeds. 


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