“International Law & Climate Change: Post-Paris Challenges” @ Monk School of Global Affairs

On April 5th I attended my first Toronto event: International Law and Climate Change: Post-Paris Challenges at the Monk School of Global Affairs (University of Toronto St George campus) which was a 90 minute talk and Q&A with four expert panelists:

Jutta Brunnée
Professor of Law, Metcalf Chair in Environmental Law, University of Toronto, Faculty of Law
Laura Zizzo
CEO, Founder, and climate change lawyer, Zizzo Strategy
Matthew Hoffmann
Professor, Political Science, Co-Director, Environmental Governance Lab, University of Toronto
Meinhard Doelle
Professor of Law, Director, Marine and Environmental Law Institute, Associate Dean, Research, Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University


Despite the wonkish title and at times dry content, the panel provided a number of important insights that led me to a better understanding of the intricacies of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. The ones that struck me the most were:

–  The agreement is binding in interesting ways: it allows countries to set their own emissions targets, but requires them to monitor & report on them regularly, and to continue reducing their target over time.

This means that in theory, yes, under the agreement a country can set a high target and pollute all it wants, but they have to clearly report it to the rest of the world. If they choose this path, it would not only impact their international reputation, it could also hurt their economy and exports if their trading partners decide to use those emissions numbers to set up anti-polluter tariffs. As the panelists put it, the agreement “builds the framework to put pressure on polluters, without actually forcing limits”, or in others words “the Paris Climate Agreement is the global equivalent of Weight Watchers”

– For the first (?) time in international law, a treaty directly recognises and impacts the behaviour of private and sub-national actors (companies, provinces, cities). At the last few COP conferences and especially in Paris, these actors played a major role (that fact that our provincial Premiers showed up was no accident).

An international treaty among nations typically cannot regulate non-state actors, and so the goal of the Paris treaty was to set the global expectations and provide support, to “orchestrate not regulate” local action. This is particularly important because the current national targets (NDCs) are too high and would result in more than 2°C temperature increase without sub-state action

– The panelists seemed to agree that on the whole the agreement is ambitious, especially in terms of its comprehensiveness (all nations and sources of emissions are included) and its innovate design (combining flexibility & pressure, and setting up a long-term process of international cooperation). Whether or not countries and sub-state actors step up to the plate is another matter.

– Apart from the treaty, there was also agreement on the major positive change of tone & focus around the climate debate. Laura Zizzo shared a story about how top asset managers are now putting pressure on Fortune 500 companies to provide detailed reports on the impacts of climate change to their assets (think stranded carbon or vulnerable coastal infrastructure) and provide plans on how they intend to adapt. This, along with the huge drop in cost of many clean technologies is (finally) shifting global investment patterns.

All in all, I came out of the talk with more understanding and respect for what the Paris agreement is trying to accomplish. And perhaps a bit more hope for the future.


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