Obstacles on the road to an effective legal agreement in Paris – Part One

July 21, 2015

Posted by: Frances Lawson

With the submission of Parties’ mitigation commitments gathering pace, the obstacles to an effective legal agreement at the 21st Conference of the Parties are becoming ever clearer. Below is the first of a selection of the contentious issues that remain to be resolved if the new agreement is to be credible and effective.


Since the conception of the international climate change regime, the baseline against which greenhouse gas emissions reductions in developed countries have generally been measured is 1990. Indeed, this was the agreed baseline year for most Parties to the Kyoto Protocol.

Over time, this baseline consensus has been eroded with an increasing number of countries opting for a different, later, baseline year when emissions were higher than in 1990. This enables Parties to appear to being making significant emissions reductions when, relative to 1990 levels, they are far less impressive. The United States was one of the first Parties to opt for a 2005 baseline, but the current suite of INDCs shows that an increasing number of others are following suit. Canada’s baseline year is 2005, while Japan has opted for 2013 as a baseline year, with 2005 levels in brackets. Even New Zealand’s INDC is based on the 2005 baseline, chosen for “ease of comparability with other countries” – a flimsy justification given that the EU’s INDC, covering 28 Parties, remains rooted to 1990 as the baseline year. Norway, Liechtenstein and Switzerland have also stayed loyal to the 1990 baseline in their INDCs.

The problem with this 1990-2005 baseline year disparity is threefold. First, it gives a misleading impression about the extent of developed country Parties’ emissions reductions, and particularly, about the extent of those emissions reductions post-Kyoto. Secondly, it makes it impossible to evaluate the sufficiency of developed country Parties’ commitments relative to what the scientific consensus tells us is required. Thirdly, it hinders the comparability of developed country Parties contributions to the Paris Agreement, contrary to what the New Zealand INDC claims.

Only with the use of a consistent baseline year can the Paris Agreement hope to be effective as a legal instrument. Only if that baseline year is 1990 can the Paris Agreement enable developed country Parties’ ambition levels to be evaluated relative both to established science, to each other and to their legal commitments under the Kyoto Protocol.

Unfortunately, the increasing variety of baseline years is a reflection of the current nature of the climate change negotiations. Despite the positive rhetoric about the primacy of tackling climate change, such is the resistance among many Parties to taking actions deemed contrary to short/medium-term “national interest” that the UNFCC regime is now characterised by a “laissez-faire” attitude which enables Parties to select the terms on which they make commitments thereunder. Such an attitude is just one of numerous obstacles that lines the road to a legally effective, and ecologically sufficient, outcome in Paris.
The second obstacle will be outlined in next week’s post.

The Parties mitigation commitments (INDCs) can be found here