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Henny Penny lays an egg in Paris

By John de Meyrick - posted Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Over 40,000 diplomats, delegates, and the leaders of 195 nations and other luminaries, transported in a multitude of atmosphere polluting planes and motor vehicles, descended on Paris in the past two weeks to decide “the planet’s last best hope to stave off the worst consequences of climate change”; or as French President Francois Hollande put it, “the planet’s future and the future of life”.

Frightening stuff ! Enough it seems for the panic button to be pressed in the diplomatic and political ‘chicken coup’ and Henny Penny was off and running in every direction, with world leaders each vying to be the most convincing in their persuasion and reassurance of each other that we are all doomed unless the world can at least prevent the average global surface temperature from increasing by more than 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial revolution (circa 1760) average.

But the conference has done better. The unanimous agreement of all 195 nations provides not only to limit and neutralise carbon emissions to bring the average global temperature increase “well within” the 2°C objective, but to also strive to reduce that average to 1.5°C.


So finally, all the scaremongering which climate scientists have had to engage in to bring about the hastening of the incremental shift in global political will which began with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, has paid off. The chickens have come home to roost in Paris. Henny Penny has finally laid an egg and we will now see how it hatches out.

Once the self-congratulatory applause dies away in Paris and the 40,000 participants return home, the optimism of COP21 (as the accord is referred to) needs to be translated into positive results and, if the science is right, the respective nations have to be convinced that the situation is urgent and that there is no time to waste. The yet to come treaty based on the accord has to be signed and implemented with real, immediate and transparent carbon emission-reducing action. 

So let’s look at what has been agreed to in this 31 page accord because, as the saying goes, the dirt is in the detail.

Leaving aside the first 20 pages of introductory, preliminary and contextual statements of intentions and understandings, the ‘active’ clauses are to be found starting on page 21: the Articles of the agreement.

It is not all that surprising to find that these articles allow for a number of self-interpretive provisions should any country wish to legitimately cheat or ‘go easy’ on the agreement. In particular, the fundamental objective to neutralise and (hopefully) reduce carbon emissions is prescribed within “the context of sustainable development and the effort to eradicate poverty” and “will be implemented to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances” (Art.2).

That is “lawyer speak” for: do your best but if your economic capability is not up to it and if your social disadvantage and limited stage of development is of greater priority, then you’ll be excused.


Also, there is no fixed time for the optimum purpose of the agreement (“peaking”) to be achieved (presumably because success and co-operation is not assured). That task is prescribed on the basis of parties aiming “to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible [with] rapid reductions” thereafter, and with the long term aim extending over “the last half of this century” (Art.4).

Consideration and concession is also given to “developing countries” (unnamed, but which we are all supposed to know) by “recognising that [the objective] will take [them]longer” to achieve, and again within “the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty” and having regard to “different national circumstances” (Art.4 et seq).  

There is also much use and differentiation throughout the Articles of the words “shall” and “should” (one instance of which caused a last minute flurry of concern to the US delegation in regard to the setting of economic wide targets for the cutting of greenhouse gas pollution). This makes many provisions advisory at best rather than imperative, so that discretion in their implementation becomes permissible at law.

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About the Author

John de Meyrick is a barrister (retíd), lecturer and writer on legal affairs.

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