If the turmoil caused by the United States stepping back from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change was not enough, France has proposed that all 193 member countries of the United Nations adopt a new, overarching and legally-binding global agreement on environmental issues that it has drafted.

French president Emmanuel Macron is going to “launch” the proposed Global Pact for Climate Change at a summit on the sidelines of the ongoing session of the UN General Assembly in New York on Tuesday. The summit is expected to be attended by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

Breaking from usual practice, France prepared the first draft of the global agreement without consulting with other countries in June. France wants to introduce its draft as the base document for a formally negotiated umbrella global agreement on environment under the aegis of the UN.

Diplomats from at least 15 developing countries, including India and China, held informal closed-door discussions on the draft in August. Officials present at the meeting said they were unanimous in their misgivings about both the contents of the draft and the manner in which France had gone about unilaterally drafting the first version. These officials said the diplomats’ initial assessment was that the pact in its current form was one-sided and upset the laboriously negotiated balance between demands of development, equity and environment under the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, 1992, and other international agreements.

“It is a bit ridiculous really,” said a diplomat from a large developing country who participated in the discussions held in August. “France has produced this out of thin air. Taking a pure environmental approach without the context of equity, sustainable development and poverty eradication, which are priorities for developing countries, reflects a unidimensional approach. The Rio Declaration was carefully negotiated. It covers the Sustainable Development Goals similarly negotiated and adopted in 2015, which are more balanced and multidimensional in nature. This document if accepted could become the basis for renegotiating all the basic principles from scratch.”

The diplomat did not want his or his country’s name to be mentioned because of the sensitive nature of the matter.

The officials said the US too is unlikely to encourage an umbrella legally-binding global pact on environment, encompassing all existing global green agreements being negotiated at this stage.

But going by diplomatic practice, most countries are expected to wait for France to show its cards further until they comment. So far, France has not proposed it for discussion under the formal UN General Assembly agenda.

“As yet we do not know what this new animal is,” said a senior Indian government functionary who is keeping tabs on the matter. “One cannot comment on something that France prepared on its own domestically. So India, and I presume all other countries, will wait for France to explain itself. ”

India has not made an official comment on the French proposal. Neither has any other key country.

The embassy of France in India did not respond to queries sent by Scroll.in.

What the French propose

On the face of it, the draft global agreement seems an anodyne repetition of what India and many other countries adhere to even under their respective domestic laws.

  • It talks of the “polluter pays” principle: those who pollute pay for reparations and restoration of environment.   
  • “Every State or international institution, every person, natural or legal, public or private, has the duty to take care of the environment.”  
  • “Present generations shall ensure that their decisions and actions do not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  
  • The draft proposes that each country shall ensure activities under its jurisdiction or control does not damage environment of other nations, or in areas beyond the limits of its national jurisdiction.  
  • Each country shall take necessary measures to ensure an environmental impact assessment is conducted prior to any decision made to authorise or engage in a project, an activity, a plan, or a programme that is likely to have a significant adverse impact on the environment. This is something the Indian laws already provide for.  
  • It asks that “Parties [countries] and their sub-national entities refrain from allowing activities or adopting norms that have the effect of reducing the global level of environmental protection guaranteed by current law.”  

What the draft leaves out

That it is proposed as a legally-binding international agreement without respecting economic and other differentiation between countries – the bedrock of international development and environmental pacts – has several developing countries upset, many people familiar with the matter confirmed.

“The proposed pact does not reflect the principles adopted by all countries by consensus in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development in 1992,” said a diplomat from another developing country who attended the August meeting. “The draft says decisions would be keeping in mind ‘diversity of national circumstances’. This phrase is designed to replace the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and create a wedge between the Least Developed Countries and most vulnerable countries on one side and the rest of the developing countries on the other. This is a goal many have had for a decade at the climate negotiations and that was only partially achieved in the Paris Agreement. This would extend the application of this diluted idea to other areas of international environmental law as well.”

Susan Biniaz, a senior legal expert who has worked for the US government on many international agreements on environment between 1989 and 2016, has also written a critique of the draft proposal.

A second Indian official said, “The draft gives primacy to the rights of the future generations without addressing the crisis of the present generation, including the need to meet their basic needs and overcoming poverty. It ignores the disbalance in the resource-sharing that right now prevails between different countries. This bogey of sacrificing intra-generational equity for the sake of inter-generational equity has been attempted several times before by rich countries wanting to retain their existing levels of unsustainable consumption of resources.”

The official added: “The pact shifts the burden from state responsibility to ‘everyone’s contribution’ to care of the environment. This is consistent with the efforts by some at the negotiations for the Paris Agreement to shift responsibility to developing countries and non-state actors, and away from developed countries.” This attempt was successfully blocked by many developing countries working as a collective at Paris in 2016.

He explained the implications of having a new and overarching legally-binding UN treaty on environment: “The establishment of this as a ‘legal agreement’ with compliance etc throws into question the status of the Rio declaration and the existing international environmental agreements. If this pact has different language, obligations, requirements and provisions than the previously negotiated ones then this one would prevail over all other to extent that there is a conflict. The principle of ‘the later in time will prevail’ under international law is well recognised.”

For now, though, officially all key countries have done what diplomacy requires them to – wait, watch and understand each other’s perspectives quietly. Diplomats said informal closed-door negotiations and discussions to figure out France’s intent would naturally take place among countries as part of larger and specific discussions on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting.

A conference to discuss the draft agreement is planned to be held at Columbia University, US, on September 20. It will be co-hosted by Jeffrey Sachs, Special Adviser to the UN Secretary General on the Sustainable Development Goals, and the university’s Earth Institute, which Sachs leads. Chairman of India’s National Green Tribunal, Swatantra Kumar, has been named as one of the panelists for the one-day conference.