Negotiators have several terms for the way they plan to enforce any deal reached at global climate talks in Paris this December. “Peer pressure” and “cooperation” are a couple. “Race to the top” is the American buzzword.What you won’t hear mentioned is the word “sanctions”. Or “punishment”.For all their efforts to get 200 governments to commit to the toughest possible cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, climate negotiators have all but given up on creating a way to penalise those who fall short.The overwhelming view of member states, says Christiana Figueres, head of the UN Climate Change Secretariat, is that any agreement “has to be much more collaborative than punitive”, if it is to happen at all.”Even if you do have a punitive system, that doesn’t guarantee that it is going to be imposed or would lead to any better action,” Figueres said.To critics, the absence of a legal stick to enforce compliance is a deep – if not fatal – flaw in the Paris process, especially after all countries agreed in 2011 that an agreement would have some form of “legal force”.They warn that a deal already built upon sometimes vague promises from member states could end up as a toothless addition to the stack of more than 500 global and regional environmental treaties, while the rise in global temperatures mounts inexorably past a UN ceiling of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit), with the prospect of ever more floods, droughts and heatwaves.
That fear finds its sharpest expression in a proposal from Bolivia’s socialist government for an International Climate Justice Tribunal with powers to penalise countries that break commitments.Diego Pacheco, Bolivia’s chief negotiator, said anything less would be “dangerous to Mother Earth”.But the idea is a non-starter with almost every other country going to the Paris talks, from Nov 30-Dec 11.Even the European Union, which has long argued for a strong, legally binding deal, is increasingly talking about a “pledge and review” system under which national commitments would be re-assessed every five years against a goal of halving world emissions by 2050.Elina Bardram, head of the European Commission delegation, insisted that strong compliance mechanisms were vital. “Weak rules would undermine the whole structure,” she said.However, many developing nations oppose reviews of their goals, wanting oversight to be limited to the rich.Nick Mabey, chief executive of the E3G think-tank in London, says a Paris deal is likely to be more like international agreements limiting nuclear weapons than accords under the World Trade Organization, which can impose sanctions.A watchword of nuclear non-proliferation – “trust but verify” – could be the basis, he said.Yvo de Boer, the United Nations’ former top climate official, said he remembers the moment when he realised that the principle of sanctioning countries for non-compliance was dead.In 2001, as a senior member of the Dutch delegation, de Boer attended a closed-door meeting of environment ministers in Bonn, Germany, that was designing rules to enforce the UN’s 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which obliged about 40 rich nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions.