Paris Agreement: The tough work ahead
The much-hyped signing ceremony of the Paris Agreement is over, where a record 175 states signed the Paris Agreement. While Christina Figueres, Executive Secretary, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) termed this achievement as “spectacular” and “remarkable”, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it “historic” and a “boost to multilateralism”. True, that this record is an unprecedented development in the history of the legal treaties under the Vienna Convention. It is also significant because signing represents the first step towards the advancement of the Agreement to come into force—only the first step. The road from here is even more challenging and tough.
Difference between signing and ratification
The signing ceremony of the Paris Agreement, which was adopted on December 12, 2015, initiates the formal process of its entry into force. Article 21 of the Paris Agreement elaborates the process for the Paris Agreement to come into effect. Accordingly, for its entry into force, the agreement needs to be ratified by 55 states representing 55 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions globally. “Ratification” is an act by which a state signifies that an agreement is legally binding on the terms of a particular treaty. To ratify a treaty, the state first signs it and then fulfils its own national legislative requirements. Thus, ratification is different from signing which provides for preliminary endorsement of the agreement, whereby countries express their commitment to put into action the processes leading to the ratification of the legal agreement. Once the thresholds are met, 30 days later, the Paris Agreement would come into force. But is it that easy?
The present status
In the signing ceremony, 15 states submitted their instruments of ratification, or in simple words, ratified the Paris Agreement. These 15 states, which are mostly island states, account for almost one fourth of the first threshold of 55 states to ratify the Agreement. With regard to the second threshold of the states representing 55 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions globally, these 15 states are responsible for a negligible 0.02 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions. In reality, therefore, ratification of these 15 states does not mean anything as far as implementation of the Paris Agreement is concerned. What it does mean is that island states being on the frontline of climate impact seek to set the momentum for others to ratify the Agreement as quickly as possible. It also implies that the global community need not wait for 2020 for the Agreement to come into force as reflected in the Paris outcome. It can come into force as early as this year if ratified early!
Will the major emitters ratify?
On March 31, the heads of the two largest emitters the US and China, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping respectively announced that both countries would not only sign the agreement on April 22 but ratify the agreement as early as this year. Roughly put, the United States and China together account for nearly 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Even if both countries ratify as per their announcement, it still falls short of 55 percent requirement. Therefore, more states need to come on board. Other countries that have signalled their intent to ratify the Paris Agreement this year are SIDS (Small and the Islands Developing States) and LDCs (Least developed Countries) accounting for 4 percent of the total global emissions, Canada, Latin American and African countries. Together, including US and China, all of these countries’ emissions add up to nearly 48-50 percent of the global emissions, thereby still falling 5-7 percent short of the 55 percent threshold mark. This means that other players such as the EU, Russia, India and Japan also need to ratify the Paris Agreement for its implementation. However, neither of the above-mentioned countries have expressed any sort of intent to ratify in the near future. Moreover, it is important to note that countries have to adhere to their domestic legislative processes which are often time-consuming and bureaucratic in order to ratify an international agreement. Therefore, the chances that the Paris Agreement would be ratified anytime soon are extremely remote, even though there was a lot of optimism and strength shown for the same in the signing ceremony.
Why early ratification is important
The Paris Agreement means nothing unless it is implemented. For its implementation, it is essential that the Agreement comes into force in a swift manner. Given the fact that the devastating impact of climate change is increasing at an alarming rate globally, states have come to this general understanding that global, concerted and early action on climate change is a must, hence the urgency of ratifying the Paris Agreement.
Second, as per the joint statement with China, there are better chances of early ratification of the Paris Agreement under the Obama administration before the new US President takes office in 2017. Obama, of course, would also like to take credit for being among the first movers for implementation of the Agreement. Among the new nominees, while the Democrat Hilary Clinton has expressed her willingness to take forward the climate actions under Obama, the Republican Donald Trump has been extremely sceptical about climate change, calling it a “hoax” and a “Chinese scheme”. He has gone on record to call the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) as the “laughing stock of the world”. Should he get elected, chances of his administration opting out of the Paris Agreement are not bleak, just like the US opted out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001 under its former President George W Bush in 2001. In that case, the future of the Paris Agreement would be extremely uncertain if the world’s biggest historical polluter quits it. On the other hand, if the Agreement is ratified under the Obama Administration, under Article 28 of the Paris Agreement text, a state can only withdraw from the Agreement after three years of its coming into effect. This means that the next president cannot withdraw until 2019, and the withdrawal would not be effective until sometime in 2020. Chances of withdrawal though are very less if a Democrat is elected as the next President. This is deemed as one of the major reasons why states including the US are pressing for an early ratification of the Paris Agreement.
As reiterated, the Paris Agreement is more than just signatures. It has taken years of tireless negotiations for states to reach a common consensus on how to tackle climate change—the blueprint of which is the Paris Agreement. These efforts cannot be allowed to go waste at any cost. Even though much of the clauses in the Agreement are yet to be teased out, it still provides the world with a roadmap of the future course of climate efforts. The momentum acquired in the signing ceremony must not be halted and countries must start their national processes of ratification to the Paris Agreement for meeting the requirements of the ratification process. Early entry into force of the Paris Agreement is in the global interest.
(The author is a senior researcher at the Centre for Science and Environment. Views expressed are strictly personal)