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Are climate declarations legally binding on countries that have signed the Paris Agreement?

Legal Correspondent : Nashrah Fatma

November 11, 2021.

The 2015 Paris Agreement is a voluntary accord, rather than a treaty, between 194 nations signed by their legal representatives. As a result, it is not regarded as legally enforceable, preventing countries and corporations from being sued in order to compel them to accept legal responsibility for harmful carbon emissions and policies. Or at least, that was the established legal precedent when it came to the Paris Agreement, as well as declarations and agreements made at yearly COP summits since 2015.

However, more than 1,800 lawsuits are pending around the world, seeking to hold nations and corporations accountable for their climate change pledges and emissions. At least one significant case has yielded results: In May 2021, a Dutch court ordered Royal Dutch Shell to reduce carbon emissions significantly more quickly than it had pledged. The issue was determined not by international law, but by tort law: a legal obligation not to intentionally injure others.

John Knox, an international law professor and former United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, has closely studied these legal challenges. As a proviso, Knox cautioned that claims based on human rights would almost certainly face significant opposition from the world's two largest polluters, the United States and China.

In the United States, a historic climate lawsuit, Juliana v. United States, filed by 21 young people in 2015, is making slow progress toward a possible Supreme Court appeal. The petitioners claim that multiple US governments have violated their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by supporting the fossil fuel industry with policies and subsidies while disregarding scientific warnings of climate catastrophe. John Fitzgerald, a veteran of U.N. climate meetings in 1992 and now general counsel to Methane Action, a USA-based environmental NGO points out several reasons why vulnerable nations already suffering climate impacts like Fiji, the Marshall Islands, the Maldives, Bhutan and others are not lining up legal counsel. He says: “If they blow the whistle, they fear losing foreign aid or even trade, though in some cases the damage from climate change exceeds whatever money they are receiving.” He went on to say that the 2015 Paris Agreement, as well as subsequent pledges, are not the only grounds of legal action. The Convention on Biological Diversity, which was signed by 150 countries in 1993 and focuses on conservation, contains provisions that would support legal action.

Article 3 of the Convention says: “States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law…the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.”

It is evident that countries like the United States are not doing much to curb emissions and save the world from a global catastrophe. In the face of the biodiversity and climate change crises, vulnerable countries must take action and hold global players accountable.


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