With no sanctions, can pledges save the Earth from climate change?

With the Paris climate talks looming, 149 countries have stepped up and pledged to cut carbon emissions. But there are no systems in place to enforce these commitments. 

Aaron Favila/AP
Filipino nuns and priests, along with Catholic groups, lead a march to raise awareness on the dangers of climate change in suburban Quezon city, north of Manila, Philippines as they observe the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and ecology on Oct. 4. The rallyists said the march was their response to Pope Francis' call for Catholics worldwide to take care of the environment and humanity's common home, mother Earth.

Climate negotiators are banking on countries’ voluntary pledges to save the world from global warming. 

Will that be enough?

By Monday, 149 countries had submitted pledges to curb greenhouse gas emissions, European Climate and Energy Commissioner Miguel Arias Canete told Reuters. If met, those nationally set goals will stop global warming at 3 degrees Celsius, one degree above the global goal of 2 degrees, determined to be the cutoff to prevent dangerous consequences.

Still, efforts to stop climate change center around these voluntary pledges with no sanctions in place to ensure the full execution of these promises. 

According to Christiana Figueres, head of the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat, the member states think that any agreement “has to be much more collaborative than punitive.”

The goal, for the Paris climate talks coming later this year, is to have 200 countries come together to pledge to cut world emissions in half by 2050. 

Mr. Canete says 149 nations are a step in the right direction. "It is a substantial number. Many of them are coming along before Paris," he said. These 149 states encompass 90 percent of global emissions, according to Canete.

But critics worry that nation-initiated pledges without compliance will not work. 

Bolivian officials have proposed the creation of an International Climate Justice Tribunal to fill that penalizing role. Anything less, said Diego Pacheco, Bolivia’s chief negotiator, would be “dangerous to Mother Earth.”

But most countries headed to the Paris talks don’t support the proposal.

A previous climate agreement included punitive measures, but, as Ms. Figueres said, "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.”

When officials sat down in 2001 to create rules to enforce the UN’s 1997 Kyoto Protocol, a commitment by about 40 nations to curb emissions, it was a struggle to set the rules.

“The agreement was to be legally binding, but it became very clear that a lot of countries didn’t want sanctions,” Yvo de Boer, the United Nations' former top climate official, said at the time.

Rules were set in place in 2001, but nations have abandoned the plan set in Kyoto more recently without punishment.

Current agreements may be based more around a collective “race to the top,” as the United States position puts it. In such a scenario, countries compete to be the greenest, pushing each other up as they go. 

Mr. de Boer, now with the Global Green Growth Institute in South Korea, said that no sanctions could mean a better chance of a broader climate agreement. "The sting has been taken out of the process,” he said. “That means the chances of a deal are much better."

This report contains material from Reuters.

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