Interpreting States’ general obligations on climate change mitigation: A methodological review

Published date01 July 2019
Date01 July 2019
RECIEL. 2019;28:107–121.    
States, governme nts, corporations a nd possibly other legal p ersons or
individuals have v arious obligat ions with regard to t he mitigation of
climate change. So me obligations a re establishe d by specific ins tru-
ments, including treaties or unilateral declarations through which
States endorse particular objectives and consent to particular commit-
ments, as well as l egislation and regulation th rough which national or
subnational gover nments impose cer tain obligations on t heir subjects.
Other obligat ions arise from general n orms, such as the no- harm prin-
ciple in internat ional environment al law, positive obligatio ns to protect
the enjoyment of hu man rights, or (in so me domestic legal r egimes) the
duty of the government to protect environmental resources under the
public trust doctrine. These general mitigation obligations may require
higher ambition than special obligations,1 but the content of these
general obligations remains largely ill- understood. For example, while
1States have wid ely recognized th e ‘ambition gap’ bet ween the aggre gate impact of mit i-
gation act ion pledged by i ndividual St ates and thei r common objec tives. See , e.g.,
UNFCCC ‘Decis ion 1/CP.17, Outcome of the Work of th e Ad Hoc Working G roup on Long-
term Cooper ative Actio n under the Co nvention’ UN Do c FCCC/CP/2011/9/Add.1 (15
March 2012) rec ital 3; ‘Decision 1/CP.18, Agr eed Outcome Pursuan t to the Bali Action
Plan’ UN Doc FCCC /CP/2012/8/Add.1 (28 Februa ry 2013) recit al 2 above para 4;
‘Decision 1/CP.19, Furthe r Advancing the Du rban Platform’ U N Doc FCCC/CP/2013/10/
Add.1 (31 Januar y 2014) recital 4; ‘D ecision 1/CP.20, Lima C all for Climate A ction’ FCCC/
CP/2014/10/Add.1 (2 February 2 015) recital 7; ‘Decis ion 1/CP.21, Adoption of the P aris
Agreemen t’ FCCC/CP/2015/10/Add.1 (29 Janua ry 2016) recital 10. See also UN FCCC
‘Decision 1/CP.24, P reparations for th e Implementatio n of the Paris Agreem ent and the
First Sess ion of the Confer ence of the Part ies Servin g as the Meeting o f the Parties t o the
Paris Agreement’ default/files/resource/cp24_auv_1cp24_final.
pdf> para 14; and ‘ Talanoa Call for Ac tion by the Pres idents of COP23 a nd COP24’ (2018)
, calling for enhanced ambition on mitigation action.
DOI: 10 .1111/reel .12285
© 2019 John Wiley & Son s Ltd, 9600 Garsing ton Road, Oxford OX4 2D Q, UK and 350 Main Stre et, Malden, MA 02148, U SA.
Email: A variety of norms in i nternational and domestic law impl y that States have a general
obligation to mitigate cl imate change (e.g. no- harm principle, obligation to prote ction
of human rights, pub lic trust doctrine). Yet a major methodologi cal difficulty is faced
when interpreting this general mitigation obligation: how to determine the requisite
level of mitigation act ion? This article ident ifies and discusses v arious methods for
the interpretatio n of States’ general mitigation obligatio ns in light of domestic cases.
On the one hand, a top- down approach seek s to determine a State's requisite mitiga-
tion action in the li ght of a global objecti ve on climate change mitigatio n and of
effort- sharing c riteria. On the othe r hand, bottom- u p methods put empha sis on the
demand for internal con sistency, on the obligatio n for a State not to downplay its
contribution to enviro nmental impacts unfolding b eyond its territory, and on various
emerging transn ational standards. The ar ticle argues that the top- down and bottom-
up approaches enable a sound interpretation of States’ general mitigation obligations
especially when t hese approaches are used in combinati on.

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