One of the more serious flaws in the Paris Agreement on climate change is that – largely as a sop to the Republican Party Neanderthals in the US Congress – it is entirely voluntary. Governments have promised that they will cut carbon emissions, but this is not legally binding.
In the UK for example, recent government actions are exactly the opposite of what is needed to stand even half a chance of meeting the undertakings in the Paris Agreement. Cutting renewables subsidies, ending the ‘Green Deal’, and pulling the rug out from research into carbon capture and storage, while subsidising fracking and the building of new gas power stations leaves the UK dependent upon yet-to-be-invented technology or a time machine to go back and remove all of the excess carbon the government intends burning between now and 2030.
This can leave ordinary people feeling powerless. But in signing the Paris Agreement, governments have paved the way for legal redress in the civil courts. In an article for the International Bar Association, Katie Kouchakji suggests that:
“With the Paris Agreement on climate change relying on governments voluntarily taking measures to cut emissions, there’s a growing body of opinion that it could lead to increased citizen action – and litigation for inaction.”
Kouchakji cites cases in the USA and the Netherlands where citizens have already won points of law against governments that they accuse of not acting to protect future generations. The Paris agreement is likely to give extra weight to these arguments, and make it harder for governments to renege on their promises.
Nor is it only citizens who are likely to seek legal redress. Kouchakji suggests that where government actions/inactions impact on corporate investment decisions, they could find themselves facing legal action from the corporations and their insurers to recoup their losses – something that ought to ring alarm bells at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, where government u-turns on renewables are thought to have cost energy companies several billion pounds.
Kouchakji helpfully provides a link to Columbia Law School’s database of developing case law on climate change for anyone wanting to pursue this.