U of T Law student reflects on COP21 climate conference
“History will judge our generation not for having adopted the Paris Agreement, but by how we implement it”
“There was electricity in the air when the COP21 president took everyone by surprise and declared the adoption of the Paris Agreement late on Saturday night in Le Bourget. All who were present rose up as one and screamed their joy, hope and relief.”
So began international environmental law student Christopher Campbell-Duruflé’s final blog post on the COP21 conference in France.
However, Campbell-Duruflé was not entirely sold on the conference’s final results. “To many observers,” the blog post went on, “the last session of COP21 was excessively self-congratulatory. The current level of nationally determined greenhouse gas reduction contributions is thought to lead us towards global temperature increases of 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, which would likely have dire consequences.”
Campbell-Duruflé is a Doctor of Juridical Science (SJD) student in the Faculty of Law, as well as a junior fellow at Massey College and a global justice fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs. He attended the conference as a member of the University of Toronto team led by political science professor Matthew Hoffman, co-director of the Environmental Governance Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs.
Campbell-Duruflé is also an associate fellow at the Centre for International Sustainable Development Law in Montreal and holds a doctoral scholarship at the Centre for International Governance Innovation at the University of Waterloo. U of T News talked to Campbell-Duruflé about COP21 and its implications for climate change and environmental law.
How did you get interested in environmental law?
Through my interest in human rights. I worked on Indigenous law in Canada and on transitional justice in Colombia. I also interned at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and worked on contract for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. During each opportunity, my assignments made me reflect on the impact of climate change on our lives, and especially vulnerable populations (including women, children, older persons, Indigenous peoples, minorities, migrants, rural workers, persons with disabilities and the poor).
How did the opportunity to go to COP21 come about?
I was dreaming to go to the COP21 almost from the day I started my doctoral thesis research. This is like going to the Olympics for environmental and human rights lawyers! Securing an accreditation was not an easy task at all, since people from all around the world wanted to go. I owe huge thanks to Professor Hoffman for accrediting me as part of his University of Toronto team.
My association with the Centre for International Governance Innovation at Waterloo and the Centre for International Sustainable Development Law in Montreal also helped, because both organizations sent some of their researchers to the COP. I was able to help them organize three high-level events held at Cambridge University, La Sorbonne, and the COP site in Le Bourget, and even present my work at the first of those events.
What is the significance of COP21?
Many experts – including my supervisor, Professor Jutta Brunnée – have observed that the approach to climate change reflected by the Kyoto Protocol, whereby states agreed to precise and binding targets, is being replaced by something new. COP21 appears to confirm this hypothesis. While it has the general form of an international treaty, each state is free to determine its own level of contribution to climate change prevention and mitigation, and the enforcement mechanisms established are essentially based on peer pressure. Furthermore, the role of non-state actors (including civil society, corporations, financial institutions and cities) is directly referenced in the adoption decision. All this suggests that the ways of making international law in the future will be much "softer" than what we have generally been used to.
In your final blog post, you seem to have mixed feelings about COP21. Why is that?
Judging by how loud everyone cheered when COP21 President Laurent Fabius declared the adoption of the Paris Agreement, the negotiations were a great success. However, the treaty could have gone further. For example, there is no clear deadline before which we must decarbonize the global economy, no mechanism to sanction high-emitting populations like that of Canada if they only adopt weak mitigation commitments, and no special recourse for those countries that will most suffer from climate change’s impacts to sue historical emitters.
The Paris Agreement was a success if we compare it to where we were before. Those states that ratify the agreement will be legally obliged to present mitigation commitments and to update them periodically. Because we know that acting on climate change sooner rather than later will save us an incredible amount of human suffering and economic resources, and because many populations will not want to see the reputation of their country tarnished because it is not doing its share, I am hopeful that people will demand the adoption of increasingly robust climate change policies in the near future.
What’s next? For the world? For you?
As many the delegates pointed out, history will judge our generation not for having adopted the Paris Agreement, but by how we implement it. The November 2016 COP22 in Marrakesh will be a chance to take stock of the progress achieved and identify what further GHG emission reduction commitments are necessary. Negotiations will also continue on certain issues not fully resolved in Paris, in particular that of reparation for climate change-induced loss and damage. This represents an opportunity for Canadians to reflect on how we can do our share, for instance through energy efficiency, transition to renewable energies and improved mass transit.
The next step for me will be the completion of my doctoral thesis project on the transformations of international law in the context of climate change. The interviews that I did during the COP21, the content of the negotiations, the final outcome, and the way it will be implemented in the coming months provide me with a fascinating laboratory to inquire into whether international environmental law is progressively opening to different degrees of legal bindingness, law-making by a range of state and non-state actors, and implementation through innovative mechanisms. I am anxious to assess how these changes position it as a tool to address one of the most complex and pressing challenges of our time.