Over 170 Countries Sign the Paris Agreement: What next for SIDS?

Alicia Nicholls

Earth Day 2016 was extra symbolic this year. On this day (April 22nd), 174 countries plus the European Union signed the Paris Agreement at a High-Level Signature Ceremony at the United Nations’ Headquarters in New York. Among the signatories were small island developing states (SIDS) from the Caribbean, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, for whom climate change is a serious matter of survival.

The Paris Agreement, which will replace the Kyoto Protocol when it comes into force, is a landmark climate change agreement which aims to strengthen the global response to climate change. Many years in the making, the Paris Agreement was concluded and adopted at the end of intense negotiations during the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) 21st annual Conference of the Parties (COP21) held in Paris last December.

Climate change is a global problem with implications for us all. According to the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA, 2015 was the hottest year on record since the start of record keeping in 1880. If these first few months of 2016 are anything to go by, this year may shatter that record handily.

SIDS which are responsible for less than 1% of global GHG emissions, are the most vulnerable to its adverse effects. Besides sea level rise, extreme weather events have caused tremendous economic devastation and loss of human life. The Rapid Impact Assessment showed that Tropical Storm Erika cost Dominica 90% of its gross domestic product (GDP). Earlier this year, the Category 5 Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston ravaged the Pacific SIDS of Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga and Niue. In Fiji the storm left 44 dead, destroyed over 31,000 homes and caused 1 billion USD in damage.

For SIDS, climate change is an existential threat to our economies, societies and survival, which led our states to push the “1.5 to stay alive” campaign. To keep the temperature increase to just 1.5 percent above pre-industrial levels or even 2 percent, signature of the Paris Agreement is just one step.

Signature is not the same as ratification

The turnout for the signature of the Paris Agreement is reported to be a record number for a new treaty. However, signature does not make a treaty legally binding on a signatory party unless the Treaty specifically provides for this. In the case of most treaties, like the Paris Agreement, it is only after a party has deposited its instrument of ratification (or accession, approval or accession) that it has consented to be bound by the treaty.

The ease of the domestic ratification process depends on the legal system and domestic political processes in each state. In the US, the type of international agreement determines the process. Article II, section 2 of the US Constitution requires approval of two-thirds of the US Senate for a treaty to be approved. Executive type agreements do not require congressional approval. Given the strong objection to the Paris Agreement in the Republican-controlled Congress, the US negotiators were careful to avoid any language or provisions, such as mandatory emission reduction targets, which would require Congressional approval of the agreement. However, the US has not yet ratified the Agreement and the upcoming US Presidential election this November could lead to a dramatic reversal in US policy on climate change depending on whom is elected president. No one wants a repeat of the Kyoto Protocol; the US had signed it but did not ratify and was therefore not bound by the Agreement.

According to Article 21, the Paris Agreement will enter into force 30 days after at least fifty-five parties which account for at least fifty-five percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) have deposited instruments of ratification. As at the time of writing this article, 177 parties have signed the agreement, which represents the vast majority but not all the 195 countries which negotiated the agreement in December. Conspicuously absent from the  signatures are several major oil producing states, namely Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Signature will be open for one year until April 2017 so there is still time for more states to sign.

Fifteen countries have so far ratified the Agreement, three of which with declarations. It is no surprise that SIDS led the way in the number of ratifications. Those countries which ratified already are the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Tuvalu, Palau, Somalia, Palestine, Barbados, Fiji, Grenada, St. Kitts & Nevis, Samoa, Maldives, St. Lucia, Mauritius and Belize.

Scaling Up of Climate Action

Even before the entry into force of the Agreement, countries will need to scale up their climate actions to reduce emissions. Prior to the conclusion of the Paris Agreement, most countries submitted their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) which set out their policies, targets and actions for contributing to the reduction of GHG emissions. In Barbados’ INDC, for example, the country intends to achieve an economy-wide reduction in GHG emissions of 44 percent compared to its business as usual (BAU) scenario by 2030. In absolute terms, this means an intended reduction of 23 percent compared to 2008 levels.

However, the just released updated UN synthesis report of all INDCs communicated by Parties by 4 April 2016, a total of 189 Parties (96% of all Parties to the UNFCCC), found that the level of ambition is still not enough to lead to an increase of less than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. There is the need to deepen ambitions and convert intention to concrete actions and achievements. This will require planning, political will, cooperation among all stakeholders, the implementation of legislative frameworks and systems for monitoring progress, implementation and reporting.

Of critical importance will be the level of reduction of GHG emissions  by countries, such as the US, China, India and in Europe, which account for over 50 percent of global GHG emissions. However, domestic politics within these countries could be an issue for meeting their goals. As an example, in August 2015, US President Obama and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the Clean Power Plan to lower US emissions by curbing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants through shifting from coal-fired power to renewable power. Some major fossil fuel producing states like West Virginia and Texas have challenged the administration’s plan and by a 5-4 decision the US Supreme Court issued a stay of the Clean Power Plan pending judicial review. Additionally, there is no guarantee that the next US president will be as committed to the climate change mitigation goals set out by the Obama administration to reduce emissions between 26 to 28 percent by 2025, which already is a modest target.

Climate Finance for Adaptation and Mitigation

SIDS require financing not just to build climate-resilient infrastructure but to transition to climate-resilient economies. One of the stated goals in the preamble of the Paris Agreement is to jointly provide USD 100 billion annually by 2020 for mitigation and adaptation, and to provide appropriate technology and capacity-building support.

Many Caribbean States have been graduated from accessing grants and concessionary loans due to their relatively high gross domestic product per capita (GDP per capita), while their high levels of indebtedness also make borrowing on international markets difficult. While several climate change finance streams are available, including funding from Multilateral Development Banks, official development assistance and dedicated funds, some SIDS Governments have raised concern  that the red tape for accessing funds is often cumbersome.

What next for SIDS?

The signature of the Paris Agreement is just but one step. Though SIDS account for less than one percent of GHG emissions, we all have our part to play in lowering emissions and contributing to a climate-friendly future. Domestically, our governments need to focus on implementing our INDC commitments and encourage the use of climate friendly technologies, including in buildings, transportation and the agriculture, tourism and manufacturing sectors. This is not a task for governments alone, but will require continued cooperation with civil society, the business community and ordinary citizens.

It also requires the continued encouragement of a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. In Barbados’ INDC, it was noted that energy consumption accounted for 72% of our GHG emissions in 2008, followed by the waste sector (16%). Disconcertingly, major players in the island’s solar energy industry have complained that falling oil prices have led to a decrease in solar installations. Barbados has been a leader in the solar industry, with a high level of solar water heater use which  saved the country a reported US$100 million on its fuel import bill in 2002. We cannot allow the drop in oil prices to allow us to lose sight of the necessity of shifting from fossil fuels for achieving our climate goals and preserving an environmentally-sustainable future for the next generations.

On the multilateral level, continued participation and advocacy in climate change talks are a must for SIDS governments. As I had indicated in my previous article, the Paris Agreement is an important step but its efficacy will depend on its ratification and implementation and subsequent follow-up, especially by those countries which contribute the most to GHG emissions. The future of our states, and the world, depends on it.

The full text of the Paris Agreement may be found here. Barbados’ statement at the High-level signing ceremony may be found here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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