The Paris Agreement: Climate Ambition, Climate Justice

Alvin Leong, Pace Global Center for Environmental Legal Studies

The official outcome of the Paris COP21 is a document that has been expertly crafted, through the use of highly nuanced language and formulations, to achieve an extremely delicate political balance.  However, its strength contains a weakness – the final text ends up balanced politically but not necessarily morally.  While it does reach for greater global climate mitigation ambition, it does not provide clear pathways for achieving this ambition, and therefore largely defers the assumption of responsibilities relating to this ambition to the indeterminate future – and in the process, leaves open important questions of climate justice. The sophisticated drafters of the document almost certainly knew what they were doing, but likely viewed this deferral as the price for realising ‘success’ now (failure was politically not an option). Consequently, this outcome, while historic, bestows the legacy of unresolved issues of climate justice and ethics that will continue to reverberate for years to come.

Reaching for greater global climate mitigation ambition, as symbolised by the iconic reference to 1.5°C in the Paris Agreement, does send a powerful signal, particularly to the business and financial communities.  Unfortunately, it is not concurrently matched by true ambition from the developed countries, in mitigation, finance, technology, loss and damage and human rights.  Much of the narrative from the rich countries, and associated media, revolves around the ‘blame India’ and ‘the world has changed’ storylines.  In these narratives, India is to be blamed for its plans to continue to use significant amounts of coal, and because the world has changed the emerging economies have to do more, particularly on finance.  While superficially attractive, these narratives distract from the political posturing by some rich countries to try to shift their responsibilities, in the words of some – to pull off a ‘great escape’.

The recent report, Fair Shares: A Civil Society Equity Review of INDCs, prepared by a number of international civil society organisations analyses the intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) of certain countries and compares them to their ‘fair share’ based on historical responsibility and capacity to take climate action. According to this analysis:

  • China will do more than its fair share and India about meets its fair share, but
  • The United States will do only about one-fifth of its fair share, the European Union is at just over one-fifth of its fair share, and Japan will do only about one-tenth of its fair share.

Oxfam’s recent media briefing on ‘Extreme Carbon Inequality’ points out that:

  • The poorest half of the Chinese population, over 600 million people, have a total emission footprint that is only one-third of the richest 10 per cent of US citizens, around 30 million people, and
  • The poorest half of the Indian population, around 600 million people, emits only one-half as much as the richest 10 per cent of people in Japan, around 12 million people.

These numbers reflect the stark inequalities that exist today between the rich and the aspiring middle-income countries. Of course, as both the Chinese and Indian economies develop further in the years ahead, they should be expected to do more, in keeping with their fair shares. But this should be accomplished in conjunction with the rich countries meeting their fair shares.

What is hidden in the reach for greater global mitigation ambition is the deep moral ambiguity as to how this brave, new carbon-constrained world will be shared, particularly with the poor and vulnerable.  Without meaningful increase in true mitigation ambition from the rich countries that at least meets their fair shares, the carbon and policy space for development will increasingly disappear. Compounding this constriction is the uncertainty of realisable financial support from the rich countries (in legal craftsmanship, the use of words such as ‘mobilisation’ lends itself to fuzzy accounting), together with the difficult prospects of vulnerable countries, including Small Island Developing States, with respect to claims for liability and compensation. Put simply, the defining moral challenge of this new climate regime is whether the poor and vulnerable peoples of this world will face a situation of – can’t develop (lack of carbon space and mitigation finance), can’t adapt (lack of adaptation finance) and can’t recover (lack of compensation), and whether concomitant responsibilities will then be unfairly shifted from the rich countries to the large middle-income countries and others.

In sum, the Paris Agreement can be pronounced a ‘success’ in that it achieves a very delicate political balance while reaching for greater global climate mitigation ambition and sends a strong signal of a carbon-constrained future to the economic world.  This political balance, however, was achieved at the cost of ambiguity in the pathways for achieving such ambition and consequently the deferral of important issues of climate justice and ethics to an uncertain future. This legacy and its related challenges will have to be confronted in the coming years.


Alvin Leong (LLM, JD) is a sustainable development advisor and a fellow at the Pace Global Center for Environmental Legal Studies