The Paris Agreement: Sign and take home

It’s no coincidence that the high-level signing ceremony for the Paris Agreement has fallen on International Mother Earth Day. Symbolism weighs heavy on political processes at the best of times, but especially when so much hinges on diplomacy and good will. Developing, negotiating, ratifying and implementing international treaties is far from an exact science. The Paris Agreement is the result of years of hard work. The signing ceremony on the 22nd April saw over 150 countries sign the Agreement. This marks a global political commitment to tackling climate change and building more sustainable economies. It will be the ratification of the Agreement that really brings the grand bargain to life, binding countries to their individual commitments. The time for high level global moments will soon be over and the less glamorous work to ensure countries have the support and resources to translate ambitions into actions on the ground will begin. Actions that change lives, allow communities and economies to flourish and ultimately prevent the worst impact of climate change. This is especially true for those countries that are the poorest and most vulnerable to a changing climate.

John Kerry 2
US Secretary of State John Kerry holds his granddaughter while signing the Paris Agreement at the High – Level Event in New York on 22nd April 2016.


Barriers remain

Beyond simply signing the Paris Agreement, it needs to be formally ratified by at least 55 countries representing an estimated 55 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions before it enters into force. This will take some years to complete. The Paris Agreement’s predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, was signed in December 1997 and only fully came into force in February 2005. Prospects this time round have been given a significant boost by the signalling from the US and China – representing 38% of global emissions – that they will take the necessary domestic steps to join the agreement (though a new Republican president in the US would mean all bets were off). A handful of countries – Barbados, Belize, Fiji, Grenada, Maldives, Mauritius, Nauru, Somalia and Tuvalu amongst others – have already ratified. It’s inspiring to see that it’s some of the most vulnerable countries with the fewest resources taking the lead. The EU has set out its intention to sign the Agreement. Ratification by Member States will be a more lengthy process.

What happens next?

Signing the Paris Agreement signals the intention by a country to pursue the ratification process at home. Furthermore it should trigger domestic processes to ensure the necessary measure are in place to contribute to fulfilling the Agreements objectives. Ultimately countries will begin “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.” These measures include revising intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs), ratcheting up mitigation commitments and preparing detailed long term sectoral decarbonisation pathways. Institutions and capacity at the national level will need to be built, resources and made fit for purpose. This will be a challenging process for many countries.

Taking the Agreement home

The 2015 Global Climate Legislation Study shows the plethora of national polices and legislation in place to protect the environment, promote renewable energy and prevent deforestation or climate change. Yet the effectiveness of these policies – and political will to make progress – differs from country to country. Having policies in place does not guarantee that the right decisions are made. And herein lies the rub. For many countries, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable, capacity and financial constraints mean well-meaning policies are not implemented effectively. The Paris Agreement, along with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), need to be taken home, prioritised and supported internationally where necessary. The current droughts plaguing Southern Africa are just one example of the impact of a heightened El Niño and a changing climate. Zambia and Zimbabwe, both significantly impacted by the droughts, plan to sign and ratify the Paris Agreement, have national policies in place and long term plans prioritising sustainability. Yet these priorities are stymied by a lack of funding, low levels of technology and institutional capacity. The international community needs to come up with ways to deliver effect with the $100 billion per year earmarked to support Paris implementation amongst developing countries, to weave the objectives into domestic polices, to access international funding, and to build civil society support. The photo opportunities are over. It’s time to deliver.


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