Environmental Justice Review
COP21 - everyone's desire to see the success at work
By Götz Kaufmann, 2015-12-27
Jerusalem, December 27, 2015 - The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on 12.12.2015 ended with an agreement to the created framework by all participating nations. Expectations were low on the outcome considering the series of failures. The Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy states in its current report (p.5, download here) that what "was felt by everyone who was present at COP21 and which could even be felt via the electronic media, [is that] this crucial momentum must be turned into a political force. Politics, the economic sector, civil society and science all have the responsibility to make utopia possible: a sustainable planet for everybody".
Remembering the history helps understand the frame of these hopes for utopia and success after the recent disappointments. After the environmental debate has reached the policy tableau at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) in Stockholm 1972 (find the declaration here), the debate on climate change picked up pace at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also called the Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro 1992. There, the countries agreed on stabilizing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. The stakeholders agreed to figure out the concessions by future treaties. The main future treaty was the so called Kyoto Protocol in 1997. There, it was agreed that the so defined 'industrialized' countries had to cut their GHG emissions. One issue already appearing at this time was that threshold countries (sometimes also called the BRIC countries) such as China and India, were defined as 'non-industrialized' countries and thus weren't required to cut GHG levels even though their emissions increased tremendously. Additionally, the USA did not ratify the treaty, which made it an empty coffin.
Five years later, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) 2002 in Johannesburg, with reference to the Rio conference in 1992 also called the Earth Summit or Rio +10, became quite a disappointment when the world leaders reviewed the results ten years after the hopeful genesis in Rio de Janeiro (see report here). In a last attempt to rescue the remains of the Earth Summit's treaty, governmental representatives gathered to the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009. The worst expectations became true and the NGO sector, political decision makers, and academia called its ending a disaster seeing no future. In face of increasing natural events that are considered as impacts of climate change (such as El Niño, hurricanes, flooding, and droughts among others) government leaders had been doomed to succeed being pressured from local, national, and international stakeholders. Finally, the conference in Lima took place in 2014, where the world community agreed to allow each country to decide for itself how to fight climate change by creating Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs).
Within this context, the COP21 in Paris took place from November 30 to December 12, 2015. When French Foreign Minister Fabius announced on the last day that an agreement has been reached, news headlines followed in quick succession. They title their articles >Miracle of Paris< (SPIEGEL ONLINE) or the >Momentous and Historic Deal< (The Guardian) and politicians of most leagues expressed their satisfaction with the outcome. Dr. Andrzej Ancygier from the Climate Analytics gGmbH argued in a first response that the "Paris Agreement is a huge step in the right direction". Only five days after the convention, the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy published (here) the first preliminary assessment of the Paris Agreement, which the authors call a kick-off for true global climate cooperation.

The excitement about the agreement, in particular in the field of environmental policy analysis - thus environmental political science - appears to be carried by both these low expectations and the happiness of any outcome (compared to Copenhagen before, see above). Looking at the outcome as discussed and published, the excitement opens questions like what does the agreement in Paris entail?
Controversies about the results emerged immediately, exemplified here by the moderated discussion at Channel 4 between Liz Hutchins from Friends of the Earth and Baroness Worthington, UK Labour's climate change spokes person:

According to the discussions and main part of the Wuppertal analysis, four major achievements have been announced to come into force by 2020:

1) A new clustering of countries 'industrialized' and 'non-industrialized' overcoming past Kyoto Protocol definitions

2) The long term goal to keep global mean temperature rise 'well below 2°C'

3) The aim for an international and public register of the INDCs every five years after coming into force (see above).

4) The recognition of the concerns of the most vulnerable members towards the immediate climate change impacts in the UN assembly accompanied by re-stating the plan of the US$ 100b funding plan.

The autors highlight two (2) successes (p.1) in the agreement: the formal abolition of the static division of the world into 'industrialized' and 'non-industrialized' states and the inscription of the long-term goal to keep global mean temperature rise "well below 2°C" (Art. 2).
The first success ends a nowadays artificial division between countries that cause pollution (called 'industrialized') and those who do not pollute but pay the price. Additionally, the Paris Agreement overcame the cap and trade system of the Kyoto Protocol by still considering trade but not caps (p. 4).
As for the second success and bullet point above, Dr. Andrzej Ancygier called it "especially strong (...) of limiting climate warming to 2°C and try to reach maximum 1.5 degrees." The Wuppertal researchers on the other side draw particular attention to the wording of the agreement. They see the terminology in Art. 4 of 'well below 2°C' as the goal is to be reached 'as soon as possible' and the speaking of 'a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century' as a call to global decarbonisation before the end of the century. Finally, they argue that the main message from Paris would be that "the age of fossil fuels is over." (p.2)
The third (3rd) above listed point of the agreement in Paris is the demand to all countries to communicate their contributions to the public, registered in five year cycles. The authors state that this ambition mechanism would lay the foundation for a global accounting system for strengthening national mitigation efforts. Actually, this mechanism is seen as one of the main reasons for the hope that the Paris Agreement will fulfil its purpose. "In this regard," the authors add "the agreement defines a 'transparency framework' (Art. 13), which has yet to be fleshed out." (p.3)
Last but not least (4th), Art. 8 of the agreement recognizes a central concern of the most vulnerable countries. The authors also express their concerns due to the resistance of many industrialized countries (first of all the USA), which allowed for only anchoring a clause in the decision text that precludes the use of these provisions as a basis for liability and compensation claims. (Ibd.)


As seen from the above review, less has been said about the shortfalls as part of the listed successes. Contrary to the overwhelming laudatio, the only evidence I see of the breakthrough is everyone's desire to see it at work. The four successes are part of the socio-historical discourse frame, in which they have emerged. The only real 'historic miracle' of Paris is in the stakeholders' recognition - in order not to be blamed by their population afterwards - of the global public's demand for any result: anything but a failure on any type of agreement was a success. The issue, however, is whether the results provide enough evidence for academic evaluation to call it a success. In fact, there is very little of a success at all.
From an environmental justice perspective, the last named point - as also named in the Channel4 discussion above - is one of the main reasons to speak about failure in Paris instead of success. Most NGOs and activists have stressed that they have been excluded from the process in Paris when it took place. Powerful stakeholders have agreed on the bare minimum and without any binding requirement. This means that who, when, and to whom payment has to be made is not included in the agreement. Who shall govern it, who contributes, who can claim it, and for what? The main concern should focus more on the "ifs" than on the written text. As the quoted Dr. Ancygier admits: "Even if the Agreement (of Paris - editor's note) is set to enter into force in 2020, we cannot afford to waste the coming 5 years with the introduction of the framework required for a global energy transition." The first barrier of a success as a fact though is not the consent of the current political class. Considering upcoming elections (at least in the democratic countries), the value of an agreement must be put on probation, if such an agreement enters into force at a time when those that have agreed to it, may not be in power anymore.
Another general aspect is the history of non-binding agreements. If we aim to learn from history, there is no example since the 'Earth Summit' in 1992 that non-binding agreements are a functional tool for achieving environmental goals. Why can we expect anything better now? Based on the given agreement, there is no hint that the future of Paris 2015 will be any better than the history of the Kyoto Protocol.
Assuming the unlikely event of an agreement of all governments to put this unbinding agreement properly into force, each of the points comes with its own necessary condition too. So, beyond the acceptance of the overall agreement, each of the points must also be put into force as well.

Here, the above bullet points 1 and 4 are part of one argument. The distinction between industrialized and non-industrialized is more a question about who pays and who does not. The Wuppertal Institute argues that the "[i]ndustrialized states will have to communicate volume and use of their financial contributions (...). The Paris Agreement only contains vague language concerning concrete financing contributions for mitigation and adaptation in developing countries. Legal bindingness of financing contributions in the Paris Agreement has been sacrificed due to pressure by the USA. (...) [T]he current decision text does not specify who will contribute to the stronger financing goal, but only speaks of setting 'a new collective goal.'" (p.4) As the authors concede, the agreement lacks much needed bite. Consequentially, Ancygier argues that "the achievement of these goals will only be possible with the involvement of the private sector." Considering the so called Friedman Argument which noted that "the business of business is business" (cf. Bentele & Nothhaft, 2011, p. 48), the history of corporate involvement without governmental frame is short.
Regarding the 4th point the main concern of most South American countries and non-governmental indigenous groups has been excluded from the negotiations: Whatever fund will be created, the legal claims of the ex-colonized countries and / or indigenous nations will never have any access or connection to this funding.
Regarding the long term goal to keep global mean temperature rise 'well below 2°C', the main issue was not part of any of the analyses, reviews, and media reports: the industrialized countries are not paying the prize of the climate change. At least, they are not paying it in the same way as many of the non-industrialized countries do. As a consequence, the Wupportal Institute's review sees the agreement first and foremost as "a strong legitimizing function for the growing civil society movements against coal power plants, mines, pipelines and other infrastructure damaging the global climate" (p.2). Additionally, the authors assume the Agreement to be at the same level as the Final Act of Helsinki that provided dissidents in the former Soviet Bloc with a crucial reference. They argue that "opponents of fossil infrastructures can now point to the goals of the Paris Agreement to justify their activities." (Ibd.) Both arguments seem to have the wish as father to the thought. The history of environmental struggles is as long and rich of legitimate claims as it is of the refusal of such legitimacy. Legitimacy does not create empowerment as such, legitimacy supports power by good reasoning. The historical reference to the Final Act of Helsinki does not contradict the fact that moral concerns have never led to a fundamental shifts. The Soviet Union broke down due to its economic impossibility to deal with the global economic demands to diversify work and labour, not due to the legitimacy problem due to the Final Act of Helsinki (as the authors of the Wuppertal report argue). The likeliness of a positive effect of formal references to being legitimately entitled to something depends on the question of empowerment of the entitled. If they are powerless, their legitimacy will not help them. Thus, until the economic system favours short term quantitative profit thinking over sustainable and qualitative growth and until long politicians are elected (in the best case scenario) for a period of time with the main goal to be re-elected, Rousseau's statement about the rich and poor will remain true: "When a society has a substantial minority of very rich and a corresponding group of very poor citizens, then (...) freedom can no longer be preserved. One must then expect that the rich will 'buy' the votes of the poor or that demagogues will stir the poor to initiate willful political centures. In either case, the general will falls victim to the will (or interest) of one fraction of society prevailing against that of another." (Legters, 1994, p.78)
Last but not least, the third result of Paris aims for an international and public register of the INDCs every five years after 2020. The sine qua non here is not only the question of whether it will be legally implemented, but also Art. 6.2 of the Agreement: it demands environmental integrity, transparency and robust accounting as its core principles, but oversight by the UNFCCC is not foreseen. As the Wuppertal review regrettingly states, "here as well dedicated guidance is to be developed over the coming years." (p.4)
And further "[t]he only viable option to make achievement of the agreed contributions is the constitution of a platform for frontrunner countries that are willing to make politics, the economic sector, civil society and science all taking over the responsibility to make utopia possible: a sustainable planet for everybody." (cf. Wuppertal review, p.4-5)

In consideration of the criteria of critical environmental justice research, existing analyses on discourses in the climate change negotiations (Vlassopoulos 2011), and the history of failures in mitigating the growing impacts of what is called the climate change, the agreement is a success only for those that actually didn't expect anything. On the other hand, the undeniable impacts on a daily basis require a more demanding academic activity in both research and analysis. The academic society should pick up their intellectual responsibility of critically analyzing the shortfalls of the event instead of highlighting the minimum achievement of our political stakeholders.

In the light of what we could learn from history, I see the forecast negative. The mid and long term outcome of this agreement will be equal to zero, and the results of all future outcomes will fail until we begin to start to discuss the gist of the matter: global unequal distribution of environmental goods and environmental burdens! The academic society is also asked to challenge its approach. The most important aspect is the self-defined role as academic. "Don't be a consultant!" as Dryzek points out. The task is to criticize technocratic and accommodative analysis, to explicate dominant and suppressed meanings, to identify the agents of impairment as well as the communicative capacities and standards of the different stakeholder involved. (Dryzek 1999: 200)


Bentele, G., & Nothhaft, H. (2011). Vertrauen und Glaubwürdigkeit als Grundlage von Corporate Social Responsibility: Die (massen-)mediale Konstruktion von Verantwortung und Verantwortlichkeit. In S. Jarolimek, J. Raupp, & F. Schultz (Eds.), Handbuch CSR. Kommunikationswissenschaftliche Grundlagen, disziplinäre Zugänge und methodische Herausforderungen (pp. 45−70). Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien.

Dryzek, J. S. (2009). Policy analysis as critique. In R. E. Goodin, M. Moran, & M. Rein (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Public Policy (pp. 190−203). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Lyman H, A. L., John P, B., & DiQuattro. (1994). Critical perspectives on democracy. (L. H. Legters, Ed.). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Image: © kirill_makarov