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Paris Agreement protects human rights

Irene Quaile
June 1, 2017

US President Trump is no friend of the Paris Climate Agreement. But can he abandon it without consequences? No, says German expert Felix Ekardt.

Frankreich Demo vor die COP21
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Thibault Camus

Deutsche Welle: President Trump is threatening to leave the Paris Agreement. What are the legal options and implications?

Felix Ekardt: From the legal point of view, he can go ahead. Three years after the Paris Agreement has come into force, the nation states are entitled to leave the Agreement. This will come into force one year after they declare they are leaving it. That means four years altogether. Whether Trump will still be President then, is another question.

Furthermore there is the possibility of leaving the whole UN climate process, that is leaving the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) altogether. This could even be done immediately. But this does not mean that nation-states like the United States can overcome for instance human rights obligations on protecting the climate by doing that.

So what exactly are those human rights implications?

Human rights are about human freedom. But freedom also has elementary preconditions like health, life and subsistence. And if we let climate change go ahead, we put those at risk. We put the food and water supply at risk. It makes conflicts and civil wars more likely. And given the human rights obligations, states are obliged to avoid these consequences if possible. So the US can't get out of that so easily.

Felix Ekardt Professor Uni Rostock
Ekardt says climate change endangers human rightsImage: Privat

So does the international community have any legal options to put pressure on the US to stay in the Paris Agreement?

Not really, since it's a voluntary decision. It's up to the states to leave the Paris Agreement or the UNFCCC, or to remain within it. But of course, we all have to live with the consequences of climate change.

What if the US stays within the agreement, but simply does not fulfill its targets?

Article 2 of the Paris Agreement obliges all the countries to keep global warming well under 2 degrees Celsius. Basically, that means reducing worldwide greenhouse gas emissions to zero within 10 or 20 years. If it stays in the agreement, it has no way of getting out of that.

At the same time, there is no way of imposing sanctions if anybody fails to keep to that obligation. The agreement simply does not provide for that. This does not only apply to the US - it's the same for everybody.

Germany and the EU are not fulfilling their targets at the moment. Verbally, they are leaders in climate protection, but their ecological footprint does not bear up to that. It is not such that the warming limits can be kept to.

So is there any point in having an agreement that only works on a voluntary basis with no legal options to use sanctions to get it implemented?

It would be better to have the option of sanctions. But still, that does not mean compliance is completely voluntary. The agreement is legally binding. Any country that does not keep to it is breaking the law.

The interview was conducted by Irene Quaile.

Felix Ekardt is a lawyer, philosopher and sociologist. He holds a chair in Law and  Science at the University of Rostock and is Director of the Research Unit Sustainability and Climate Policy based in Leipzig und Berlin.