A Powerful Signal but a Weak Agreement in Paris: Global Movement for Climate Action Must Accelerate

December 12, 2015

The Paris Agreement:

  • Signals the end of the fossil era but doesn’t set a timeline to do so – leaving millions of people worldwide to define the speed of change;
  • Acknowledges that parties should respect and promote human rights in addressing climate change; then fails to heed its own advice; and
  • Recognizes critical role of forests and ensuring ecosystem integrity in addressing climate change and brings existing safeguards system for forests into a binding agreement.

As millions march around the world, universities and pensions divest, litigators prep cases, and investors reassess fossil stocks in an era of growing risk, 196 governments meeting in Paris sent a clear signal to the fossil fuel industry that its era of unlimited expansion must end. As a political moment and as a framework for collective action, the Paris outcome offers signs of hope. However, in adopting an Agreement long on vision but short on ambition, urgency, or concrete commitments, governments left it to people and markets to provide all three.

“The fossil fuel industry’s lingering chokehold over US politics leaves the Paris Agreement a nearly empty vessel,” said CIEL President Carroll Muffett. “The structure is there, but there’s far too little inside it. The Agreement’s vision of a world ‘well below 2 degrees’ of warming moves the needle forward, but its weak commitment to ‘pursue efforts’ to limit warming to 1.5 degrees reflects a continued denial of fundamental climate realities. More seriously, the bottom up, non-binding system it establishes to achieve that vision is inadequate, inequitable and – without mass public action to ensure countries deliver – illusory. Paris will be what we make of it. And we must make of it much more than it is.”

For the first time ever in an environmental treaty, the Paris Agreement acknowledges that countries should respect and promote human rights in addressing climate change. Countries’ last-minute decision to pull an explicit reference to human rights obligations from the operative text does not lessen their duty to integrate those rights in all aspects of climate action.

“Developed countries, led by the US and EU, had a critical opportunity to accept their responsibility and set us on a pathway that effectively protects the rights of all peoples and communities,” said CIEL Attorney Alyssa Johl. “While they agreed to a framework, much more work is needed to do so.”

The Paris Agreement recognizes the critical role of forests in the fight against climate change, and acknowledges the importance of ensuring the integrity of ecosystems. Critically, the Agreement incorporates a package on REDD+ and related safeguards from earlier in the year as a policy approach to protect forests. This includes protecting ecosystems and the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities. Yet, the parties made no commitments on the scale of the funding for forest conservation efforts, and worse, the Agreement continues the dangerous myth that forest conservation can offset continued emissions from industrial polluters. A mandate to establish guidance on land use following the Paris meeting is critical and currently not in the agreement.

“It’s now clear that climate leadership, the timeline for fossil phase outs, and the demand to protect human rights will come not from negotiating halls, but from millions of people around the world who know that drastic transformation must begin now. Already, they are driving that transformation faster than negotiators can keep up,” Muffett said.


Media Contacts: 

  • Alyssa Johl (Paris) / Senior Attorney / ajohl@ciel.org / (specializes in climate change and human rights issues)
  • Carroll Muffett (Paris) / President / cmuffett@ciel.org / (specializes in climate litigation and accountability, fossil fuel risk)
  • Amanda Kistler (Washington) / Communications Manager / akistler@ciel.org

Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) uses the power of law to protect the environment, promote human rights, and ensure a just and sustainable society. CIEL is a non-profit organization dedicated to advocacy in the global public interest, including through legal counsel, policy research, analysis, education, training and capacity building.