2016: a record year for climate change (Part 2)

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a four part series we will be publishing in the coming weeks reviewing some of the important developments in the field of sustainability in 2016. We focus here on two significant political developments in the realm of international cooperation on environmental issues. One, the Paris agreement, has received a great deal of attention. The second, a decision by the International Criminal Court, received much less but also may be very important going forward. Part 1 of this series can be seen here and Part 3 here.

At the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in December 2015 (Paris Climate Conference) 195 countries became signatory to the Paris Agreement, a universal and legally binding agreement in the fight against climate change. On November 4, 2016, the Paris Agreement entered into force. As of the time writing, 125 of those 195 Signatory States have ratified the Agreement. Building off the objectives of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Paris Agreement sets ambitious goals for mitigation (limit the rise of global temperature “well below 2°C” compared to pre-industrial levels), adaptation, and support for both developing countries and those countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change through common but differentiated responsibilities. However, unlike the Kyoto Protocol, which cast out largely different obligations for developed (annex I) and developing (non-annex I) countries, the Paris Agreement requires all States to submit a nationally determined contribution (NDC). In order to both assess and guide the progress made towards mitigation targets, the Paris Agreement also requires a “global stocktake” to occur every five years.

COP21 set off a chain of positive developments in multilateral cooperation to achieve sustainable development. COP22 served as the first Meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement (CMA1) and took place from November 30 to December 2, 2016, less than two weeks after the Agreement came into force. The resultant Marrakech Action Proclamation reaffirmed many of the goals in the Paris Agreement, emphasizing in particular the importance of low-carbon economic growth in developing countries and those vulnerable to climate change and continued ratification.

In addition to Marrakech, the Kigali Amendment of the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement designed to phase out ozone-depleting substances (ODS) from production and consumption processes. The Kigali Amendment seeks to cut the emission of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) by 80 per cent by 2050. HFCs contribute to radiative forcing and are thus an important concern in combating climate change. Developing countries have different requirements under the Amendment, requiring them to freeze consumption of HFCs when a complete phase-out is not economically viable.

However, 2016 saw more than just promises to commit to the Paris Agreement targets. On September 15, 2016, the International Criminal Court (ICC) released the “Policy paper on case selection and prioritisation”, which included a section on the “Gravity of crime(s)” in relation to the selection criteria of cases that the ICC can prosecute and investigate. In a historic decision, the ICC decided that the impact of a crime can be assessed on the “environmental damage inflicted on the affected communities”. The policy paper stated that not only would environmental crimes fall under the remit of the ICC, but that those crimes will be given “particular consideration” when carrying out the mandate of the Rome Statute. Actions that warrant a prosecutorial response include those that result in the “destruction of the environment, the illegal exploitation of natural resources or the illegal dispossession of land”.

In this manner, the actions that constitute a crime against humanity can include, for instance, land-grabbing. The forceful seizure of land by governments and private entities, oftentimes in coordination, has been a persistent problem in low- to middle-income countries. In these situations, the State owns or controls a significant amount of the land, which it will sell to corporations after evicting existing tenants. Such actions result in a violation of human rights law, such as the right against arbitrary deprivation of property and the right to security of food and shelter.

Cambodia has been a well-cited example of especially troubling land-grabbing. The State uses its security forces to push communities off lands that they may once have owned or over which they have traditional ownership. However, after the destruction of records by the Khmer Rouge and the inadmissibility of traditional landholding rights, the evicted are left without legal recourse. As of 2016, there are 79 countries where land-grabbing is taking place, with an increase of large-scale land-grab by 91 projects from 2012. Large-scale land-grabs often result in deforestation and other soil degrading uses, especially in relation to agribusiness. Bringing this issue into the regulatory framework of international standards like the sustainable development goals will be an important step in both protecting human rights and the environment. The expanded remit of the ICC is a promising step for sustainable development, though certainly a very ambitious one.

Despite the November setback that the United States’ election of Donald Trump appears to be for progress on climate change, the overall trend in international policy action to combat climate change in 2016 was positive. The Paris agreements may not have been aggressive enough for some but they represent a substantial step forward, even if it might be a small step. The inclusion of environmental considerations into the ICC selection criteria was an understated development but one that indicates that environmental concerns are getting increasing mainstream recognition. There is still a great deal to be done but many important steps forward were made in 2016.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on March 15, 2017.


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