UN climate summit: Legally bound but not ‘legally binding’

Will the UN set legally binding targets, or just legally bind countries to set their targets? Welcome to diplomacy.

Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna speaks during a news conference, in Paris, France, on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna speaks during a news conference, in Paris, France, on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

It took Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna several attempts today to explain to reporters what exactly is Canada’s position on whether the Paris climate talks should lead to legally binding targets for the participating countries.

Leaders from more than 195 countries are in Paris to kick off COP21, the UN’s climate change talks. Their goal is a global agreement to lower greenhouse gas emissions, which cause temperature increases that could lead to catastrophic climate change if the warming isn’t held to two degrees over Industrial Revolution-era temperatures.

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But it’s hard to parse whether the Canadian government feels that agreement needs to be legally binding: McKenna, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion have all used phrasing that suggests that. But it turns out Canada’s position is a little more nuanced: that the agreement be legally binding, but not the targets themselves.

How does that work?

“There will be elements of the agreement that will not be binding. Certainly as part of the agreement we expect that countries will be bound, will be required, to provide targets,” McKenna said.

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Some countries, including the U.S., don’t want to risk penalties if they miss the targets. And the UN needs all countries at the table, particularly the big emitters like the U.S., McKenna said. “So we are looking at finding solutions around that.” That includes forcing countries to make promises, but not forcing them to keep them.

More specifically, she explained:

“Countries will be legally bound to provide targets. The actual target that each country provides will not be legally binding, likely [depending on the outcome of the two weeks of talks]… One of the key criteria of the agreement is that they’re also legally bound to adhere to transparency and accountability provisions, and also [to commit] to improving on the target every five years. And we believe that through transparency, through accountability, through regularly reporting, through requirements to come back in five years and improve on the targets, that we will see countries move toward what we should be doing, which is ensuring that the climate does not increase by more than two degrees celsius.”

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McKenna, who has experience participating in UN negotiations, suggested it all made sense to her. “Maybe it’s the lawyer in me,” she said as she launched into her fourth attempt at explaining.

Steven Guilbeault, senior director of Quebec social justice group Equiterre, was in Paris and spoke to reporters following the press conference. He put the problem more succinctly.

“It’s the UN. Why make it simple when it can be so complicated?” he said.

“The minister is right: countries will be legally bound to put forward targets, but these targets will not be legally binding in the sense that the UN cannot go in Washington or Ottawa or Paris and police what countries are doing,” he said. “Countries tried to have an enforcement mechanism through the Kyoto Protocol. The U.S. never ratified it. Canada ratified it but pulled out. Japan, Russia, Australia, never really met their commitment. This was attempted at the UN and it didn’t really work.”

Guilbeault says he agrees with the federal government that the five-year review mechanism is key. The targets already announced ahead of the Paris conference are projected to let temperatures grow to 2.7 degrees.

“Such a weird feeling to be in agreement with my government again on things relating to climate change,” said the long-time environmentalist.

Follow Maclean’s Laura Payton for updates from COP21

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