Paris Agreement, Precautionary Principle and Human Rights: Zero Emissions in Two Decades?
1. Research Issue and Methodology: Basics of the Paris Agreement and Its Legally-Binding Nature
2. Climate Policy between Art. 2 and Art. 4 PA: Global Zero Emissions in Just a Few Years Instead of the End of the 21st Century?
3. Lack of Clarity in the Data: On Base Year, Certainties, Climate Sensitivity, Frictions of Scenarios and a Precautionary Principle Strengthened by Human Rights
- Firstly, many calculations are based on limiting global warming to two degrees, which is less ambitious than staying “well below 2 degrees” in accordance with Art. 2 para. 1 PA. Following a two degrees pathway will not only lead to higher budgets, but also to underestimating the extent of the challenge: zero emissions within a short period of time. The longstanding discourse on the compatibility of economic growth and environmental protection for instance widely ignores this by not choosing the required level of ambition (in detail, see [3,54,55,56]; not discussed by ; on costs, see also ).
- Secondly, not all budgets include non-carbon-dioxide emissions. The inclusion of non-CO2 emission in the scenario calculations has different implications, since they have different global warming potentials (GWP; lifetime in the atmosphere and radiative efficiency) . Some models include only CO2 (on TCRE, see ). In other scenarios, non-CO2 emissions are included, but it is not yet possible to include the complexity of their varying GWP changing their amounts. Therefore, a fixed level of non-CO2 emissions is chosen in current scenarios, inclining recent studies to assume that their impact is currently underestimated [17,37,41,60]. Even so, other greenhouse gases do not remain in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, and they cannot be disregarded in their effect on the climate [18,59]. Concluding the need for action in terms of greenhouse gas emissions from a carbon-dioxide-only budget, the scope of the problem is artificially reduced.
- Thirdly, budget calculations become rather liberal by setting the base year of the “pre-industrial level” (Art. 2 para. 1 PA) rather late, meaning when climate change had already set in. This leads to an underestimation of human-induced global warming (IPCC data are also compiled at ). Generally, a baseline is needed to make consistent calculations. As mentioned earlier, a base year between 1860 and 1880 is most commonly used in calculations of the temperature limit; however, 1750 is also mentioned [20,24]. This leads to the question of when exactly industrialization, respectively the increase of emissions actually started. The IPCC draws the line initially in the year 1750 . However, calculations and estimations of the average global warming are either based on the year 1850 or 1870, because there is little temperature data on the time prior to the 19th Century. However, data that do exist are limited to the Northern Hemisphere [1,17]. The increase of carbon dioxide before 1850 accounts for a temperature rise of 0.1 to 0.2 degrees Celsius . On the bottom line, defining “pre-industrial level” is merely a free-floating empirical discussion about the emissions level of the respective time. However, looking at the term “pre-industrial level” in the PA as a legal document, it seems mandatory to assume 1750 as the base year; because this is when the industrial revolution in Western countries actually started, and not as late as between 1860 and 1880.
- Fourthly, existing calculations seem also quite liberal, if comparing other assumptions on climate sensitivity. Equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS)  indicates the temperature rise if CO2 equivalents in the atmosphere double. It is therefore an important reference for climate modelling and lastly also in determining the temperature limit of Art. 2 para. 1 PA . According to , the ECS is probably between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees Celsius. Newer studies by [61,62] suggest that the ECS has been underestimated and might be at the higher end of the range or even above it. Paleoclimatic research showed for instance that climate sensitivity changes with the state of the climate. In warm phases (such as we are in right now), the ECS is significantly higher, according to the calculations of , 4.88 degrees Celsius; thus, clearly above the IPCC range. The authors in  found in their study that the amount of solar radiation reflected by clouds into space is not as high as assumed so far. Instead, more radiation penetrates the cloud layer and warms the Earth more strongly. Depending on the cloudiness, climate sensitivity is up to 1.3 Kelvin higher than so far expected .
- Fifthly, budget calculations are based on accepting a high probability of missing the temperature limit. However, the willingness to live with success probabilities of 50 or 55 percent is astonishing (even if 100 percent certainty will obviously never be reached when dealing with future situations). Therefore, we need to consider: some critical tipping points like the melting of the Greenland or the West Antarctic ice shield, and coral bleaching will probably even occur if the temperature rise stays well below two degrees [31,63]. A target range between 1.5 and 1.8 degrees guarantees therefore by no means landing in an array, which leaves a margin for error.
- It has to be pointed out that governments cannot accept staying within 1.7 to 1.8 degrees, but have to aim at 1.5. As said before: the obligation to make “efforts” towards the 1.5-degree target does legally not allow for an easy dismissal of this objective. Rather, actual measures have to be taken to achieve more reductions than probably required for a 1.7- or 1.8-degree target.
- Human rights contain the obligation for climate protection to secure elementary preconditions of freedom, which are life, health and subsistence [3,6,46,64,65,66,67,68,69]. This obligation is at the same time explicitly recalled in the preamble of the PA: knowing that unrestricted anthropogenic global warming interferes with food and water security and will therefore (alongside more natural catastrophes) increase the likelihood of migration movements and wars over shrinking resources. This may endanger the foundations of human civilization . While it is true that balancing human rights obligation to climate change is prima facie left to political margins (for instance, due to the contradicting freedom rights of enterprises and consumers), which is only limited by those balancing rules that have to be complied with, one of these rules states that political margins of decision-making end where political action or non-action will endanger the liberal-democratic system as such  (on further rules, see also [44,46]). This is exactly the effect unchecked climate change might have. For this reason, ambitious climate policies are obligatory in view of human rights.
- This raises the question how strongly and how quickly emissions have to be reduced. It is obvious that all those developments described are well possible, however not in all details definitely certain to occur. However, basic rights protect not only against certain dangers, if the danger is at the moment of occurrence irreversible; and exactly this is the case with climate change. Otherwise, the protection provided by basic rights runs empty [3,11,69]. Human rights thus contain a precautionary principle; even if this were disputed, it remains undisputed that the precautionary principle (also) exists independently of human rights on national, EU and international law. This is manifest, e.g., in the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Art. 3 para. 2 UNFCCC, in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) in Art. 191 TFEU or in the German Constitution in Art. 20 lit. a Grundgesetz (German Constitution, GG). Precaution means taking measures in view of long-term, cumulating or uncertain damages [3,9,70,71]. All this applies to climate change. The connection to human rights only served to emphasize (and provide grounds for litigation) what is already enshrined in the precautionary principle: the bigger the impending damage in its occurrence, the more ambitious the necessary protection measures have to be; which also includes measures at the cost of mentioned goods like economic freedom. Therefore, in dealing with existential dangers, it is not enough to accept moderate probabilities for their defense, even if 100 percent certainty can of course never be reached regarding future events.
- Furthermore, as we will see in Section 4, it is not allowed from the legal point of view to calculate TABs based on an overshoot or on geoengineering measures.
4. Results: Legal Interpretation and Resolution of the Relationship between Art. 2 and 4 PA
- In favor of the priority of Art. 2 para. 1 PA standing firstly, that it is an overarching objective. Art. 4 PA deals subordinately with concrete strategies in order to achieve this objective. Art. 3 and Art. 4 para. 1 PA literally state this twice. The point of orientation, and accordingly the prior norm, is therefore Art. 2 PA.
- From the perspective of history and the purpose of the norm, Art. 4 para. 1 PA means above all (even if the wording includes all states, due to the term “Parties”) that developing countries and emerging countries (not, however, industrialized countries) should still have time to reduce their emissions. This is also reflected in Art. 4 para. 4 PA. For developing countries, this is not possible without violating Art. 2 para. 1 PA. Anyhow, the fact that primarily one group of states is meant shows two things: Art. 4 para 1 PA has a rather operative and serving character. For industrialized countries in particular, it is highly doubtful whether Art. 4 para. 1 PA is intended to stand in contradiction to Art. 2 para. 1 PA.
- A third, systematic point can be framed as follows: if interpreting the norm hierarchy in favor of Art. 4, Art. 2 would still be violated. If, on the other hand, interpreting in favor of Art. 2, Art. 4 PA is not violated; it is rather overachieved, as Art. 4 PA does not prohibit being faster than formulated. The phrase “keep well below 2 degrees” in Art. 2 PA underlines also that emissions cannot rise indefinitely and then brought back to a level accommodating the temperature level. Art. 3 PA clearly states that states have to comply with Art. 2 PA by continually increasing their level of ambition (on the current level of efforts in the following chapter). It reads: “As nationally determined contributions to the global response to climate change, all Parties are to undertake and communicate ambitious efforts as defined in Articles 4, 7, 9, 10, 11 and 13 with the view to achieving the purpose of this Agreement as set out in Article 2. The efforts of all Parties will represent a progression over time, while recognizing the need to support developing country Parties for the effective implementation of this Agreement”.
- A fourth systematic reason speaks for the priority of Art. 2 PA over Art. 4 PA: the PA is in its legal systematic interpretation a concretization of the UNFCCC, respectively implementing a legal treaty within the UNFCCC. Especially, Art. 2 UNFCCC contains the overarching objective of all international climate law to prevent dangerous anthropogenic disruptions of the global climate. This disruption can, as shown previously, only be prevented if Art. 2 para. 1 PA is treated priory to Art. 4 para. 1 PA, because the indications in Art. 4 para. 1 PA would allow for such a substantial global warming. According to the Art. 31 para. 3 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, such a systematic interpretation of the PA in light of other legal acts of international law is explicitly part of the interpretation process. This is all the truer as human rights guarantees also point in that direction, as seen earlier.
5. Discussion and Concluding Remarks: The Paris Objective and Climate Policy up to Date
Conflicts of Interest
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Ekardt, F.; Wieding, J.; Zorn, A. Paris Agreement, Precautionary Principle and Human Rights: Zero Emissions in Two Decades? Sustainability 2018, 10, 2812. https://doi.org/10.3390/su10082812
Ekardt F, Wieding J, Zorn A. Paris Agreement, Precautionary Principle and Human Rights: Zero Emissions in Two Decades? Sustainability. 2018; 10(8):2812. https://doi.org/10.3390/su10082812Chicago/Turabian Style
Ekardt, Felix, Jutta Wieding, and Anika Zorn. 2018. "Paris Agreement, Precautionary Principle and Human Rights: Zero Emissions in Two Decades?" Sustainability 10, no. 8: 2812. https://doi.org/10.3390/su10082812