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The power of 2°C: towards a new paradigm of international lawmaking?

Published on February 25, 2016        Author: 

The outcomes of the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — the Paris Agreement — is widely lauded as a ‘historic’ achievement. It is still up for debate whether the new Agreement will really become a historical turning point that can lead us to a carbon neutral future, as some scientists criticised its empty promises and insufficient actions. However, one implication of the Paris Agreement is clearly ‘historic’ and should be celebrated — it is the most important international treaty adopted in the recent decade, agreed by 195 countries. Despite stagnation in international lawmaking observed by Pauwelyn, Wessel and Wouters (2014), the Paris Agreement under the UNFCCC shows that reaching a multilateral agreement is still possible. In addition to Prof Jorge Viñuales’ recent analysis, in this post I would like to discuss a key factor that makes the Paris Agreement ‘special’, i.e. a strong link between climate talks and numerical standards.

One shining star of the COP21 talks was the so-called 2-degree target — in order to prevent dangerous climate change, global mean temperature should not rise 2 Celsius degrees above preindustrial levels. The target was first recognised by the European Union (EU) in 1996 and has gradually proliferated into political debates and the public sphere (see Randall’s widely cited article for the history of the target). Now 2°C is literally everywhere in the news; CNN even has a special column called two degrees. One well-known achievement of the Paris Agreement is that not only it stresses the importance of keeping global warming ‘well below 2 °C’, but also pledges to ‘pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C’ (Article 2(1)(a) of the Agreement). 2°C has undoubtedly become the symbol of climate negotiations, and moving from 2 to 1.5 °C is considered by many as a major triumph.

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