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The Paris Climate Agreement: Empty Declaration or Window of Opportunity?

Did the agreements that came out of the December 2015 COP 21 in Paris really hold any meaningful weight? A few weeks later, now that the dust has settled, it is time to critically assess what came out of the climate agreement and what it will mean for countries, civil society and the planet.


It has only been a few weeks since the Climate Change Conference concluded its activities in Paris, a city still in shock after the November 13th terrorist attacks. With the adoption of the Paris Agreement during the emotional closing ceremony, amidst hugs, tears, standing ovation and shouts of enthusiasm, months of negotiations and two very tense final weeks came to an end. Without any doubt, it was an emotive event for all attending, but also for those watching from their television sets. However, euphoria cannot replace the in-depth analysis of the final resolution of the COP21. Has the event in Paris been a success or a failure? Will this resolution be remembered as a decisive milestone in the global attitude towards climate change and in particular as the end of the irresponsible attitude of the highly industrialised and polluting countries, as we hear from the more optimistic experts? Or are we facing another sterile UN declaration, of the many we have seen, as stated by the pessimistic side? Or should the Paris Declaration rather be considered as a resolution that is just in between these two extreme options? Is it a challenge, which can only be met if the signatory governments are subject to active and robust pressure from the different actors within civil society? A window of opportunity, allowing environmental activists to avoid that global temperatures continue increasing to levels endangering indefinitely the future of significant parts of global society and nature?

It is obvious that this is not an ordinary event. There is no doubt that the moment in which Laurent Fabius’ green hammer hit the desk on December 12th, in the enormous Le Bourget hall, filled with country delegations from all nations around the world, ruling the adoption of the final text of the Paris Summit, marked a historic moment and a diplomatic success. I must admit that I was fascinated by the stream of emotional images which followed. Images of the Rio Summit in 1992 came into my mind as well as those of the conferences in South Africa, Buenos Aires, Nairobi, Cancun, Doha, Lima, and many other ones, a few of which I attended. Among them, the Copenhagen Conference is the one I remember most. It is certainly the one that left the bitterest aftertaste of all. The frustration and disappointment felt by the majority of those who were present is difficult to forget. My mind wandered over the names and faces of those many militants and activists who, with their protests, marches, proclamations, efforts to persuade and exert pressure on elected peoples, ministers and governments, dedicated most of their life to fight against climate change.

Failure or step in the right direction?

The outcome of the Paris Agreement includes many negative points, beginning with its lacking sense of urgency. Moreover, the country pledges to meet the stated goal of limiting the rise in global temperatures to 2°C are not sufficient and will not avoid heading straight towards an increase of 2.7°C; some scientists even talk of 3.5°C by the turn of the century. This, of course, is only if the promises made by each of the governments in the “Intended Nationally-Determined Contributions”(INDC’s) will be kept, which is by no means guaranteed. Furthermore, the Agreement is not legally binding, contains no real control and does not foresee any sanctions for the countries failing to keep their promises. Each country decides whether to stand by its declared intentions or not. Besides, each member state may decide to leave the club, even once the Agreement has come into force (which means once it has been ratified by 55 member states representing 55% of the global emissions of CO2 or more and ratified by the United Nations on April 22nd 2017), without suffering any greater consequences. The only inconvenience faced by a country wishing to leave the club is that it will have to wait three years to do so.

In addition to these negative aspects, we must keep in mind that the Agreement does not include any schedule for penalty or taxing CO2 emissions. Neither does it consider the subsidies, exceeding 500 billion dollars per year, benefiting the fossil fuel industry, not to mention the area of environmental justice that falls short. To put it in a nutshell, the declaration which has been adopted so pompously is, in many aspects, a declaration of good will; a catalogue of good intentions. And its transformation into policies and actions completely depends on the respective countries and therefore on the pressure society puts on them.

However, the Paris outcome is an important step in the right direction, mainly because:

  1. The consecration of the objective established by the Paris Agreement to limit the rise of global temperature to a level “significantly below 2°C” and at the same time, to call the signatory countries to limit the increase to 1.5°C goes beyond all expectations.
  2. The Agreement explicitly acknowledges that climate change is caused by man, which entails a collective backing from the world’s governments to the works done by the IPCC and its scientists.
  3. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Resolution has been unanimously accepted by all the countries of the world (194 governments, as well as the authorities of the European Union) present at Le Bourget. Moreover more than 188 countries already presented their CO2 emission cutting plans.
  4. It formally and explicitly acknowledges the “differentiation”, or, in other words, the different existing responsibilities between industrialized countries – largely responsible for current levels of pollution – and emerging and developing countries. Although this is insufficient, it entails an implicit acknowledgement of the environmental debt of industrialised countries towards underdeveloped countries.
  5. It formalises the promise to mobilise at least 100 billion dollars each year from 2020 until 2025 to face up to the negative effects of climate change on the planet’s poorest countries and to adapt their economies to the demands for sustainable development, and confirms the proposals made during the previous COP’s, committing the signatories to its compliance. This does not alter the fact that this figure is insufficient and only guaranteed until 2025.
  6. The decision to reduce CO2 emissions with a regular revision every 5 years could help to generate significant international pressure on countries to keep their promises and to remain willing to adopt gradually more demanding policies. But the reviews begins too late, as mentioned already, to the point of putting at risk the possibility of meeting the Agreement’s targets.
  7. We cannot ignore the positive influence which the Agreement could have on public and private actors and their investment policies, stimulating initiatives such as the “Disinvestment” campaign. Opening credit guarantee lines for environmental projects as incentives for companies, financial institutions and local entities to invest in technologies and green segments of the economy cannot be overlooked.
  8. Last but not least, the adoption of the Agreement is an opportunity for civil society, with its NGOs, active citizens, committed militants and various organisations: it confers new legitimacy to climate activists who urge world leaders to adopt strong measures to curb climate change (including unorthodox initiatives such as lawsuits against companies, public authorities and government instances due to their culpable lack of responsibility in environmental handling).

Up down against top down: A different way to deal with problems at the international level?

The process which culminated in the adoption of the Paris Agreement is also highlighted by the adoption of a methodology opposed to that seen in Copenhagen: instead of following a “top-down” decision making mechanism, the UN diplomacy followed a more “bottom-up” path. For the first time all countries were involved from the very beginning, asking them to produce a report on the efforts and objectives they were prepared to assume for reducing CO2 emissions (the intended nationally-determined contributions). In addition to an intense consultations policy with NGOs, municipalities, business people, and many other “stakeholders” or parties, this allowed participants to influence stronger the drafting of the text with their suggestions and recommendations and to directly witness the effects of their contributions, especially in the final stage, when they saw how the brackets containing the “yet to be resolved and to be adopted matters” were gradually removed as agreements were achieved or not.

The outcome undoubtedly represents a success for the United Nations as an international instance for collective negotiation at a time in which the problems it is facing are very serious and the organisation appears particularly weakened.

Nothing is the same but still nothing has changed

It is true however that a few days after the signature of the Agreement, nothing has actually changed. CO2 emissions have not dropped a single gram, the glaciers are still melting at the same rate as before, the floods and droughts continue to strike the affected countries, tornadoes and hurricanes have not ceased to devastate the concerned regions, the sea level continues to rise, the coral reefs are disappearing and the most vulnerable and poorest parts of society remain as unprotected as ever before. The original and tropical forests are still being destroyed and the risk of environmental refugees increasing is looming large.

Yet nothing is the same. Not only scientists and activists of different origins are demanding the adoption of measures to save the planet. It is now the international community, the community of all States spread over the planet meeting in Paris, which has formally declared its willingness to take action and to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As stated by Greenpeace, in Paris it was made clear that fossil fuel energy sources are on the wrong side of history. Renewable energy had never before gained such recognition from the international community. To everyone’s surprise, the countries with the largest oil reserves in the world, such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Russia and Venezuela, gave in to the Agreement.

It is now time to be as vigilant as ever before. The obvious risk for the Agreement to be undermined cannot be forgotten. The danger of nuclear industry trying to benefit from the opportunity provided by the need to drastically reduce CO2 emissions is not to be ignored. The same precaution must be taken in relation to technology for capturing and storing CO2, which supposedly allows to continue exploiting carbon in a clean manner. A technology, the validity of which is far from being proven and is strongly contested by ecologists and the scientific world. The environmental movement and civil society must remain vigilant in order to ensure that the clauses of the Agreement are not used to give the green light to technologies which, although they may contribute to reducing CO2 emissions, have “collateral effects”, which are just as harmful as the technologies we aim to ban.

More than ever, all will depend on the pressure exerted by civil society, the activists, the citizens, scientists, the media, religious communities and the NGO’s on elected peoples and governments around the world, as well as the actions implemented by local municipalities and initiatives, by dynamic business people, by farmers, by associations, and so on.

Stopping climate change has been officially acknowledged as a crucial vector for 21st century humanism. Making its objectives become an irreversible reality, with the necessary urgency, is the task we are faced with.

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