Roundtable on Oslo Principles, what are they and what will they mean?

“Cross-border cooperation by nations could be the key to preventing climate disaster”

Climate change, is it a ‘thing’ and how serious is it? The more legal-minded people might have heard or read about the latest ruling in Dutch courts, Urgenda, where a group of academics and private citizens sued the government for non-compliance with its plan to reduce emissions. The court in The Hague gave this organisation the victory, where many had given up hope, and said that the government had to effectuate at least 25% decrease in carbon-dioxide emissions by 2020, against the claimed 40% by Urgenda. Nevertheless, this is a worldwide landmark that is starting a trend where citizens can claim reduction of gasses with legal effect.  

On a related note, not too long ago I attended an interesting event on the ‘Oslo Principles on Global Climate Change Obligations’ at The Hague Institute for Global Justice. This institution is an independent organisation established to conduct research overlapping several fields, develop tools by specialists, sharing knowledge between several disciplines. 

The Roundtable event at the Institute for Global Justice was set up to have an hour of presentations by two professors, after which the attendees were invited to pose questions on the Oslo Principles and their obligations towards countries and corporations. In the audience were members of several ministries, international diplomats, company officials and students like myself.

First speaker with an impressive CV: prof. dr. Thomas Pogge who serves as Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs and Director of Global Justice Program at Yale University.

Prof. Pogge (left) during his address

Prof. Pogge (left) during his address

Maximizing bargains or a moral approach?
Prof. Pogge started off by stating that cross-border cooperation by nations could be the key to preventing climate disaster. The only problem with that approach to climate change prevention is that in an economic sense we’re still living in a world of competing entities, where everyone’s trying to maximize their bargains. This eventually leads to the so-called ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ where the negative consequences are felt by all, yet the gain is felt by one. The question here is how to distribute burdens to prevent climate change among states.
The Oslo Principles are therefore a cooperative legal framework, with appeal for moral common sense, instead of focusing on the vulnerability-based bargaining where a country with high CO2-emission would have to contribute more than other countries towards making it “undone” (monetary penalties/cutting the emission). However, this seems highly unfair if you consider that these countries are usually the less developed ones, with a growing economy. Pogge mentioned that the goal is to stay below a 2 degrees Celsius increase, which, if exceeded, would lead to vast negative impacts.
The main points that call for action are the following:

  1. Climate change is making oceans less alkaline, which means that the pH level has gone from 8,2 to 8,1. This might seem like a small alteration, but the impact of this has enormous consequences.
  2. With more CO2 in the atmosphere, the heat of the sun is getting trapped in, causing the global warming.

The problem is that if we would stop today with our polluting activities, the earth will still keep on heating up.
On a general note, that’s not a reassuring thing to hear.

Maastricht University’s honorary professor
One of Maastricht University Faculty of Law’s Honorary Professors, prof. dr. Jaap Spier, who is also Advocate-General at the Dutch Supreme Court spoke next.
Both Pogge and Spier led a group of elite academics in international law, human rights law and environmental law and wrote the ‘Oslo Principles on Global Climate Change Obligations’. These principles have been set up to reduce the imminent threat of fatal climate change that is happening right now on a global level.

Climate change is real and human-induced
Mr. Spier started off his part of the lecture by expressing that the legal debate on climate change up until now has been merely vague.
What he really wanted to be clear was that climate change is: 1. Real 2. Human-induced. To put some emphasis on this last sentence, he repeated it several times to make sure the audience understood fully that climate change is not just a myth, something that we’ve heard of but are not interested in. He also said that by putting our focus on it, we could hopefully prevent it, which is of utmost importance.
The issue here is that we’re not sure on how many reductions we should make. There are researcher telling us about dooming scenarios where the end is near, and skeptics that tell us not to be that worried about it. However, none of these are legal in any way. Cost doesn’t matter, or shouldn’t matter. Global financial crisis is NOT a disproportionate measure, he stated.

But because the burden of cutting CO2 emissions would be unfair to poorer countries in a per capita quote, prof. Spier instead opts for another approach. Lesser developed countries don’t have to reduce emissions at their own expense, whereas for the developed countries reduction is a must.
As an example he takes the fact that we need to reduce heating and airco, which he sees as luxuries at the expense of billions without these luxuries.
The importance of principles is that they mirror the essence of the law, where no exemption should be made to have them implemented. Prof. Spier says that climate change is impeding on the right to live of billions of people, an essential human right that we would defend vehemently in any other context. So why is this double standard applied?

The Roundtable

The Roundtable

How to enforce?
Next question in the brain of a law student or actually, any legal mind: how are these principles enforced if they were to be translated into law?
According to Spier this won’t be a matter of procedures in national courts. He thinks that trade consequences will have a much better effect than sanctions. Only in the case of excessive hardship or force majeure, will it justify non-compliance.
From a legal and moral point of view, both gentlemen were convinced that the angle of the skeptics needed to be ignored, especially in the case where their predictions and studies would turn out to be wrong.
So why is there a focus on enterprises in the Oslo Principles? According to both professors the fact remains that if all states did what needed to be done, enterprises wouldn’t have had to be mentioned in the first place.
Also, the problem remains that bribing is cheaper than getting sustainable equipment that builds towards the reduction of CO2 emissions.

Part of the audience

Part of the audience and the speakers

Conclusion
All in all, the Roundtable was very enlightening to someone who had no prior knowledge on the topic or thought that it was as serious as the two professors described to us. Also, while joining them afterwards for lunch, it was very nice that the attendees were able to pose their personal questions and present their views to the two speakers. Nonetheless, as I was leaving the event I couldn’t help feeling somewhat alarmed about the current state of affairs with our climate, which made me want to effectuate some change in this world, not climate change, however.

For the full text on the Oslo Principles, visit the following link: http://www.yale.edu/macmillan/globaljustice/Oslo%20Principles.pdf

Written by Ashika Baan
Photos provided by The Hague Institute for Global Justice

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