COP21: the Paris Agreement and the churches

COP21: the Paris Agreement and the churches

By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster

Not all will share George Monbiot’s assessment of the outcome of the COP21 talks in Paris from 30 November to 11 December 2015. Nevertheless, it does capture the tension between the legislative/technical aspects of setting binding targets for the reduction of greenhouse gases, and the diplomatic requirements of achieving a document to which all 195 countries could agree. In Monday’s debate in the Commons, Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green) cited this as the best summing up of the Paris Agreement “in all the acres of media coverage”, [HC Hansard 14 Dec 2015 Vol 603(87) Col 1300]. Nevertheless, the COP21 Agreement was broadly welcomed, and their Lordships were in a similar feel-good mood when the Statement made by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change was repeated in the Upper House, [HL Hansard 15 Dec 2015 Vol 767(85) Column 1970].

For the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury said the global church – “extraordinarily led on the issue of climate change by Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch” – must be a key partner in tackling climate change. Speaking about the COP21 Agreement, the Church of England’s lead bishop on the environment, the Rt Rev Nick Holtam, spoke on the practicalities of the Agreement, commenting:

“It is good to have an ambitious agreement about the aspiration. What matters now is that governments actually deliver a low carbon future – the transparency of accountability and process of review will be what ensures that happens. This looks like real progress – there is now a much more positive spirit about what now needs to happen than after Copenhagen six years ago, but we are still at an early stage on the journey.”

Involvement Prior to Paris Meeting

On 17 June this year, alongside many other faith leaders, the Archbishop of Canterbury endorsed the Lambeth Declaration on Climate Change which recognised the COP21 negotiations as a pivotal moment in the urgent global challenge to tackle climate change. Taken in conjunction with the national lobby of Parliament and the publication of the encyclical Laudato si’, the new Lambeth Declaration was well-timed and important exhortation to UK faith communities.

In contrast to other environmental initiatives by the churches such as the CofE’sShrinking the Footprintwhich focussed on reducing the carbon footprint of its buildings and operations by 80% in line with government targets for 2050, the activity in the run up to the Paris talks has been about influencing the attitudes of decision makers. The Church Commissioners continued their proactive engagement with their investment portfolio, and more directly the CofE organized the Pilgrimage2Paris so that “[t]hrough our prayers and our pilgrimage we are strengthening and encouraging those taking part in the Paris talks to reach fair, accountable and firm commitments which will change the way we act and move us towards a low carbon economy.” Pilgrims walked the 200 miles from St Martin-in-the-Fields, London to Paris where Bishop Nick Holtam met President Hollande to present climate justice petitions signed by almost two million people ahead of the final agreement.

Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement forms Annex A to the document concerning its adoption, FCCC/CP/2015/L.9/Rev.1, and further background data are provided on the Paris COP21 Information Hub. Prior to the talks, the BBC Magazine asked whether the jargon used in environmental discussions was actually putting people off the subject rather than enthusing them, [“the 21st Century equivalent of Latin being recited to the public in church”], the corollary to which is that very few will grasp the subtleties of the document, and reliance will be placed on the assessment of commentators. For the purposed of this discussion, the important aspects of the agreements are:

  • The document represents the text agreed by the delegates in Paris of 195 countries. It does not represent the formal agreement of these countries, and will be “open for signature and subject to ratification, acceptance or approval by States and regional economic integration organizations that are Parties to the Convention” at UN Headquarters in New York from 22 April 2016 to 21 April 2017, [Article 20(1)];
  • The Agreement will enter into force on the thirtieth day after the date on which at least 55 Parties to the Convention accounting in total for at least an estimated 55 percent of the total global greenhouse gas emissions have deposited their instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession, [Article 21(1)].
  • At any time after three years from the date on which this Agreement has entered into force for a Party, that Party may withdraw from this Agreement by giving written notification to the Depositary, [Article28(1)].

An important principle with the Agreement is that of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances”, [referred to as CBDRRC or CBDRRCILNDC]”, which is to be found in:

  • the Preamble, “in pursuit of the objective of the Convention, and being guided by its principles”
  •  Article 2(2), which states that the implementation of the Agreement will reflect these principles;
  • Article 4(3), “Each Party’s successive nationally determined contribution will represent a progression beyond the Party’s then current nationally determined contribution and reflect its highest possible ambition, reflecting its common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances”; and
  • Article 4(19), “All Parties should strive to formulate and communicate long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies, mindful of Article 2 taking into account their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.”

The use of non-mandatory language throughout the Agreement is evident. The substitution of “shall” for “should” in a section of the final draft on the financial obligations was reportedto be a potential “show stopper” for Secretary of State John F. Kerry and the US delegation, who insisted on the original, less demanding wording. The EU’s Press ReleaseHistoric climate deal in Paris – EU leads global efforts was somewhat disingenuous in its description – the “first-ever universal, legally-binding global climate deal”, since only parts are obligatory. The Agreement enhances the implementation of the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, [Article 2(1)], but is not a new Treaty or Protocol.

Michael McCarthy’s balanced review in The Tablet comments:

“the Kyoto conference in 1997, which was a limited success, and one at Copenhagen in 2009, which was an unmitigated failure … the cuts that nations will make under the [Paris] agreement are bottom-up rather than top-down – that is, their CO2 reduction targets are not dictated from the outside, but are determined domestically by each country on an entirely voluntary basis. (This was the only way that the participation of all countries, rich and poor, could be guaranteed.)


What the negotiators did, therefore, was construct a mechanism to ratchet up the CO2 reductions over time, so that eventually they might indeed be sufficient to hold global warming in check. This consists of two elements: a legally binding commitment from all countries to make a stronger carbon-cutting plan every five years, and a transparency agreement, on the same terms for all nations, rich and poor, to ensure that no one is cheating when they do so.

That’s the essence of Paris 2015: a machine to make every country in the world cut its greenhouse gases so that climate change can be halted. That it has been successfully agreed, and that all countries have agreed to it, thus transcending the perennially obstructive fault line between rich and poor nations, is a staggering accomplishment.”

Following the Paris Agreement

In his piece COP21 – The Dawn of a New Era, Edward Mason, Head of Responsible Investment, Church Commissioners for England, acknowledged the extraordinary diplomatic achievement of the finalization of the text of the Paris Agreement, but noted that its implementation will be an equally extraordinary and yet more unprecedented feat.

“Governments need to sign and ratify the Paris Agreement. They must increase the ambition of their Nationally Determined Contributions so these pledges are up to the collective task of turning round and dramatically reducing emissions. They must put in a place a stronger policy architecture to drive the transition to a low carbon economy at the urgent pace the Paris Agreement demands.”

Within the UK doubts have been raised on recent government decisions which run counter to the reduction of its greenhouse gas emissions – the last-minute cancelling of the £1bn carbon capture and storage competition, reductions in the support given to renewable energy, and the fast tracking of fracking. One compensation for Scotland’s renewable energy portfolio will be the Supreme Court’s judgment in Trump International Golf Club Scotland Ltd & Anor v The Scottish Ministers (Scotland) [2015] UKSC 74 in which Donald Trump failed in his appeal against planning permission for offshore turbines near Aberdeenshire golf course.

Mason identified the role that all must play in reducing carbon emissions: companies, investors and individuals, and for the churches this means a threefold targeting of their own carbon footprint and that of their followers, continued advocacy at national and international level, and influencing others. On this last point, on 16 December the Church Commissions announced that the ‘Aiming for A’ investor coalition of which they are a part, had confirmed that it is calling for the major mining companies, Anglo American, Glencore and Rio Tinto, to make a step change in their disclosure to investors about their response to the challenges posed to their businesses by the global drive to mitigate climate change. ‘Aiming for A’ had earlier secured successful shareholder resolutions at BP and Shell.

In Thursday’s short debate on the Paris Climate Change Conference, Lord Giddens (Lab): observed that the responses to COP21 have been almost comic in their divergence; from those describing it as “non-binding—and, ergo, toothless” [Benny Peiser, a climate sceptic] or “an historic turning point” [Al Gore, “a pillar of the climate change establishment”; and Bill McKibben, “our well-known environmentalist” who says “This agreement won’t save the planet, not even close”, [HL Hansard, 17 Dec 2015 Vol Col 2250].

I would agree with the noble Lord that “Perverse though it may seem, all of them are [correct]. They all grasp aspects of the problems which now face us”, and note that reflecting George Monbiot’s comment, Michael McCarthy’s piece in The Tablet concluded:

“So it’s a mixed bag with the Paris agreement. Yes, the process has been fixed, and that’s terrific, and for the first time points to a solution; but the outcome isn’t guaranteed … I think we can say that it’s given us a chance; and Deo gratias for that.”


 David Pocklington

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "COP21: the Paris Agreement and the churches" in Law & Religion UK, 19 December 2015,