Paris Climate Talks Not Just Hot Air, France Tells U.S.

November 13, 2015, 4:43 PM UTC
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WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 12: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks at the United States Institute of Peace November 12, 2015 in Washington, DC. Kerry spoke on U.S. strategy in Syria during his remarks. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
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Any global climate change agreement reached in Paris next month will be legally binding and have a concrete impact, France’s president and foreign minister said on Thursday, reacting to U.S. comments that questioned the status of the accord.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was quoted as telling Wednesday’s Financial Times that December’s agreement was “definitively not going to be a treaty.”

Kerry’s remarks drew a stern response from French President Francois Hollande, who was attending a European Union-African summit on migrants in Malta.

“If the agreement is not legally binding, there won’t be an agreement, because that would mean it would be impossible to verify or control the undertakings that are made,” he said.

Kerry’s French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, said on Thursday that, unlike previous negotiations, the Paris talks were not just “hot air” and Kerry was perhaps “confused.”

“The fact that a certain number of dispositions should have a practical effect and be legally binding is obvious, so let’s not confuse things, which is perhaps what Mr Kerry has done,” said Fabius, who spoke to Kerry on Wednesday.

The legal status of a global climate agreement is one of the issues to be resolved when senior officials from almost 200 nations meet from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11 in the French capital.

They will try to rise above the collapse of the last major global climate-change conference in Copenhagen in 2009 and nail down a final agreement to limit global warming.

However, while the European Union and developing nations are urging an internationally binding text, others, such as the United States, want only national enforcement.

Fabius acknowledged that the U.S. had to take account of domestic political sensitivities.

U.S. officials have said that certain elements of a Paris agreement may contain some legal obligations, but the emission reduction plans each country submits would not be binding.

Responding to a Congressional query last month about the legal nature of a Paris agreement, a State Department attorney wrote that the U.S. submission to the U.N. “is not intended to constitute an obligation the United States must fulfill under international law.”

Kerry said the text would not set “legally binding reduction targets like Kyoto.”

The Kyoto protocol, signed in 1997, imposed on all the industrialized countries that signed it an obligation to cut carbon dioxide emissions by at least 5 percent in the period 2008-2012 versus 1990. Washington refused to sign the protocol.

In 2011, governments agreed that a global climate agreement would “develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” by the end of 2015.