‘What once seemed unthinkable is now unstoppable’ said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon last week when announcing that the Paris agreement will enter into force on 4th November this year.
After years of unproductive climate talks, it seemed that international cooperation around climate change was impossible, with progress painstakingly slow and the big emitters refusing to agree to a comprehensive climate deal. In this context, the Paris Agreement made in December last year was a watershed moment. For the first time ever, 195 countries committed to capping emissions in an effort to keep average global temperatures from rising 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
What’s also remarkable is how quickly the Paris agreement has been ratified, less than one year on from negotiations. China and the US - responsible for 40% of the world's carbon emissions - jointly ratified in early September, but it was the European Parliament's decision to ratify last week that pushed the deal into action.
Still, achieving ratification from so many countries was a diplomatic nightmare. Merely a month ago, only 29 countries had ratified the treaty and there was doubt as to whether key players, such as the EU and India, would even ratify this year. But global political pressure has quite unexpectedly seen a group of countries including India, France and Canada fast-track their ratification processes and push the deal into force.
Now, over 74 countries have committed, surpassing the required threshold of 55 countries accounting for 55% of the world’s emissions. In less than one month, the world’s first comprehensive treaty to tackle global warming will become international law. When it seems that an increasing number of countries are looking inwardly, the Paris deal is a much-needed reminder of what can happen when the international community acts together.
What does Paris actually mean?
Barack Obama has called the deal a ‘turning point’ in the effort to avoid dangerous global warming. In many ways he’s right. The 74 countries that have ratified now have a legal obligation to act on pledges made at the climate talks in Paris last year. This means formulating national plans to keep the global temperature increase below 2°C and striving to keep temperatures at 1.5°C above pre-industrial targets. Countries will have to peak global greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, and rapidly decrease emissions in the second half of the century.
Most of the media coverage has focused on climate mitigation, but the Paris deal is also pivotal for adaptation and ‘loss and damage’ in developing countries. We all know that increasingly intense and frequent extreme weather events are taking a devastating toll on people’s lives and livelihoods around the world, especially the poorest and most marginalised. Just look at the devastation caused by Hurricane Matthew, which has been linked to increases in ocean temperatures.
The Paris deal commits all countries, low and high income, to undertake adaptation plans and to balance climate finance between mitigation and adaptation efforts. The treaty includes a commitment for developed countries to provide continued and enhanced international support for adaptation to developing countries. This means that developed countries have to maintain their commitments to the existing goal of providing developing countries with a total of $100bn per year by 2020, extending this until 2025. The text also contains an explicit commitment to setting a new and higher goal for adaptation finance after this period.
Sadly, adaptation is simply not an option for many people, who are unable to cope when disaster strikes due to poverty and vulnerability. ‘Loss and damage’ - the name for the adverse effects of climate change that have not been prevented by mitigation or adaptation - has been a highly contentious topic at climate negotiations.
Despite this, the agreement recognised ‘loss and damage’ as a separate pillar of international climate policy for the first time ever. Countries committed to recognising ‘the importance of averting, minimising and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change’ and acknowledging ‘the need to cooperate and enhance the understanding, action and support in different areas such as early warning systems, emergency preparedness and risk insurance. This is an important step towards placing the needs of the world’s most vulnerable at the heart of climate change policy.
Crucially, the agreement will be in force before this year’s UN climate talks in Marrakesh (7-18 November) and perhaps even more importantly, before the US Presidential elections.
While we celebrate the ratification of the Paris agreement, we must look towards strengthening international climate policy at Marrakesh. We urgently need to build on existing political momentum and flesh out approaches to both adaptation and ‘loss and damage’. This is no time for complacency: it is crucial that the next round of climate talks are even more successful than the last.