Paris Climate Change Agreement Enters into Force: What next?

Alicia Nicholls

“Humanity will look back on November 4, 2016, as the day that countries of the world shut the door on inevitable climate disaster and set off with determination towards a sustainable future.” Joint Statement by Patricia Espinosa, UNFCCC Executive Secretary and Salaheddine Mezouar, President of COP22 and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of the Kingdom of Morocco

It is with these poignant words that United Nations (UN) Climate Chief, Patricia Espinosa, and President of COP22 and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of the Kingdom of Morroco,  Salaheddine Mezouar, heralded the entry into force of the Paris Agreement just shy of twelve months after it was agreed to by nearly 200 parties at the UNFCCC’s Twenty-first Conference of the Parties (COP-21) in Paris, December 2015. November 4 was indeed a momentous day for the global community and planet Earth and the Agreement’s early entry into force signals countries’ strong stated commitment to global climate action. However, the hard work now begins.

Background

The historic Paris Agreement sets the overarching framework for global climate action. It is the culmination of years of hard-fought negotiations and compromise. Inter alia, countries around the world have committed themselves to “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5  degrees Celsius.”

This more ambitious latter threshold of “1.5 degrees Celsius” was strongly advocated for by Small Island Developing States (SIDS) which, despite their negligible contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, are the most vulnerable to the adverse and deadly effects of climate change. This harsh reality was reiterated in October 2016 when Haiti was struck by Hurricane Matthew, which took 1,000 innocent lives and has left 800,000 persons without food. The Bahamas, parts of Cuba and also of the southeastern United States also felt some of Matthew’s fury. Outside of more devastating weather events and changing weather patterns, some of the other effects of climate change include coral bleaching, sea level rise and beach erosion, which have implications for fisheries, tourism and agriculture, industries upon which many small states’ economies and livelihoods depend.

This universally accepted climate change accord was signed by over 190 parties on Earth Day (April 1, 2016). However, the Agreement could have only entered into force once at least 55 countries accounting for at least an estimated 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions had ratified the Agreement. This threshold was reached on October 5, 2016 and the Agreement entered into force 30 days later on November 4, 2016. According to UNFCCC, ninety-seven (97) countries accounting for an estimated two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions have ratified. Most major  greenhouse gas emitting parties, including the US, China, the European Union and India, have ratified the Agreement.

It’s Show time!

It is one thing to sign off on the dotted line. It is another thing to actually implement the Agreement. In regards to the fight against climate change, we are quickly reaching the point of no return. Here are some not so fun stats:

  • Global greenhouse gas emissions, including CO2 emission levels, have continued to rise. The World Meterological Organisation (WMO) reported that globally average CO2 levels reached 400 parts per million for the first time in 2015 and in 2016 again due to El Nino.
  • 2015 was the hottest year on record, surpassed only by the first six-months of 2016.
  • According to NASA, global  surface temperatures continue to rise, while “[f]ive of the first six months of 2016 also set records for the smallest respective monthly Arctic sea ice extent since consistent satellite records began in 1979”.

As United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon is reported to have said, “[w]e remain in a race against time”.

Even more concerning is that current emissions reduction targets pledged  by counties in their Nationally Determined Contributions are not enough to maintain the temperature increase to the ambitious levels set by the Paris Agreement. This was reconfirmed by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in its most recent Emissions Gap Report released the day before the Paris Agreement entered into force, which stated as follows:

Even if fully implemented, the unconditional Intended Nationally Determined Contributions are only consistent with staying below an increase in temperature of 3.2°C by 2100 and 3.0°C, if conditional Intended Nationally Determined Contributions are included (page xvii).

Another issue which is critical for developing countries’ efforts towards transitioning to low carbon and climate-resilient development is that of climate change financing. This is particularly important for SIDS, some of which are highly-indebted and with limited capacity to mobilise adequate domestic financing to fund their climate change adaptation and mitigation needs. Reiterating a promise made at Copenhagen and Cancun, developed countries have pledged in the Paris Agreement to jointly mobilise US$100 billion a year in climate change finance by 2020 from a variety of sources.

However, some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have argued that the US$100 billion annual goal is not nearly enough. There may be some merit to this argument. For example, a 2013 report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) estimated that “[i]nfrastructure investment required for sectors such as agriculture, transport, power and water under current growth projections stands at about US$ 5 trillion per year to 2020.”

There is, however, some encouraging news. The Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment Report 2016 reported that in 2015, investments in renewable energy reached nearly $286 billion, more than six times more than in 2004. Moreover, for the first time, more than half of all added power generation capacity came from renewables.

So what is next?

The modalities for the Agreement’s implementation will be top of mind when the latest round of UN Climate talks commence this week in Marrakech, Morocco. Three critical sets of UN climate meetings will be occurring:

  • The twenty-second session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 22)
  • The twelfth session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP 12)
  • The first session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement (CMA 1).

The provisional agendas for each set of meetings are available on UNFCCC’s website. In regards to CMA1’s agenda, they are expected to “consider and adopt decisions on the modalities, procedures and guidelines on the implementation of the Paris Agreement” in addition to organisational and other matters.

The elephant in the room is the upcoming US presidential election. The US is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, accounting for an estimated 17% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Its future climate action will be determined by the results of Tuesday’s poll. President Obama has pledged to cut U.S. Climate Pollution by 26-28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025.

In complete contrast from current US climate policy, the Republican presidential nominee, Mr. Donald Trump, has famously called climate change a “Chinese hoax” and has gone as far as threatened to pull the US out of the Agreement. Although it would take about four years before the US can formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement, in the intervening time, Mr. Trump could still undo the US’ progress on climate change action by overturning the executive actions President Obama has implemented to fight climate change, cancelling funding for clean energy initiatives, and reducing and eliminating aid to developing countries for climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Therefore, as I argued in a previous post, the future of US and global climate action, will depend significantly on the outcome of Tuesday’s poll.

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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