The Paris Climate Agreement Is About To Hit A Major Milestone

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/THIBAULT CAMUS

Last December, nearly 200 nations made history when they unanimously agreed to keep the world well below 2°C of global warming, compared to preindustrial levels. Now, nations are beginning the work of making sure that the promises made in Paris are actually kept.

Next Friday, April 22, marks the first day that nations can officially sign the Paris agreement, during a high-level signing ceremony to be held at the United Nations in New York. Already, more than 130 nations have announced their intent to attend the signing ceremony — if all 130 nations in attendance sign the agreement, it would be the most to have signed a U.N. agreement on an opening day, according to the United Nations. Leaders from both China and the United States — the world’s top carbon emitters — are expected to be in attendance and sign the agreement.

“April 22 is a key moment,” David Waskow, international climate director at the World Resources Institute said on a press call Tuesday morning. “We already know that countries are ready to come to New York, to the U.N., to show support.”

Didn’t nations already adopt the agreement in December?

On December 12, 195 countries — plus the European Union, acting as a single party — officially agreed to an international climate agreement in Paris. It was the culmination of weeks of meetings, months of negotiations, and years of work. But the participating nations didn’t actually adopt the text of the agreement in Paris. And that’s where the April 22 meeting comes in.

U.S Secretary of State John Kerry at the COP21 Climate Conference in Paris. () CREDIT: Ian Langsdon, Pool via AP

The text of the Paris agreement doesn’t contain any provisions that limit when the agreement can go into effect. Those provisions did exist in the text at one point, with some versions saying that the agreement wouldn’t go into effect until 2020, but according to negotiators involved in the process, those provisions were left out of the final text. The only thing that controls when the agreement “enters into force” is the number of countries that sign it, and their respective contribution to global carbon emissions.

“The importance of entry into force is it really puts into effect the key provisions of the agreement that are aimed at catalyzing climate action around the world and it will demonstrate the support of the countries that have joined the agreement,” Waskow said.

What does ‘entering into force’ mean?

The Paris agreement “enters into force” — which means that key provisions would become binding — 30 days after at least 55 countries, representing at least 55 percent of global emissions, sign the agreement and indicate their consent to join and be bound by its Parties. That last part is the step that could take some time — each country has a different means of showing their “consent to join” the agreement. Countries like Palau, Switzerland, and the Marshall Islands have all already completed this second step, and are expected to deposit their “instrument of ratification” shortly after signing the agreement on the 22.

For other countries, showing consent to join the agreement is more complicated. Australia would only need to formally notify the Parliament and introduce the agreement, but other countries — like Mexico — require some sort of legislative approval before the agreement can be joined.

In the United States, the Obama administration has maintained its stance that the agreement does not require congressional approval to join. It’s likely that President Obama will join the Paris agreement as part of an executive agreement, which can take place as long as the agreement is consistent with existing laws. Since mitigation targets in the Paris agreement aren’t legally binding — something that the United States pushed hard for during negotiations — it’s likely Obama could accept the agreement as an executive agreement without requiring Congress’ approval.

On March 31, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that both countries would not only sign the agreement on April 22, but work to ratify the agreement as early as this year. The United States and China are the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters, together accounting for roughly 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. As the Washington Post notes, that would mean that only a few other big polluters — like Russia, which accounts for 7.5 percent of global emissions, or India, which accounts for 4.1 percent — would need to sign in order for the agreement to pass the 55 percent of global emissions goal.

Options for reaching 55 percent of global emissions.

It appears as though other major emitters are also taking steps to ratify the agreement as quickly as possible. On April 7, the BASIC group — which includes Brazil, South Africa, India, and China — released a statement saying that the countries “look forward to signing the Paris Agreement on 22 April 2016 during the High-Level Signature Ceremony convened by the Secretary-General of the United Nations” and that they “expressed their will to initiate necessary domestic processes for ratification, acceptance or approval as soon as possible.”

Why would countries want to adopt the agreement so quickly?

The sudden rush to sign and ratify the treaty has come as a surprise for some, who expected the process to be a slightly more drawn-out affair (especially since the provisional negotiating text of the agreement specified that the agreement could not enter into force until 2020). But as the United States and China made clear in their U.S.-China Joint Presidential Statement on Climate Change issued March 31, others see swift adoption of the Paris agreement as a necessary step to ramping up climate action and maintaining momentum in the months following Paris.

But there might be yet another reason why the Obama administration seems bent on ratifying the treaty before Obama leaves office: If the Paris agreement enters into force before the new president takes office in 2017, it will be that much harder for the new administration to walk back on the deal.

Daniel Bodansky, a scholar of international environmental law at Arizona State University and a former attorney at the State Department focused on climate change, told the Washington Post that if the agreement enters into force before Obama leaves office, “then the next president could not withdraw until sometime in 2019, and the withdrawal would not be effective until sometime in 2020.”

That probably wouldn’t be much of an issue if either of the Democratic nominees are elected president — both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders support climate action, and both have publicly stated that they will continue, and expand upon, the Obama administration’s climate policies. But if either Donald Trump or Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) are elected president, the future of U.S. climate policy is less clear. Both Trump and Cruz have publicly dismissed the reality of climate change, with Cruz going so far as to call it “not science” but “religion.” Trump has also pledged to cut the Environmental Protection Agency if elected, calling the EPA “the laughingstock of the world.”

If the agreement is entered into before a potential President Trump or President Cruz heads to the White House, it’d be much more difficult for either to back out of the agreement. For starters, it would take some time — at least three years from the date that the United States enters into the agreement, plus an additional year. That, the Washington Post points out, is roughly the length of an entire presidential term.

And backing out of an international agreement that the United States previously entered into, Waskow said, could be an unwise move from a public relations standpoint.

“There would be quite a strong negative reaction globally, I think, that any administration would have to take into account in taking quite a significant step such as withdrawal,” he said.

Progress without ratification

Even without nations officially adopting the Paris agreement, a lot of private and public entities are already moving to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. Last month, the United States and Canada formally announced their intention to limit methane emissions. And India has been rapidly expanding their solar capacity, becoming the fourth-largest solar market globally.

President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Elsewhere, countries are rapidly phasing the dirtiest fossil fuels out of their energy portfolios. Scotland recently shut down its last coal-fired power plant. In the United States, Oregon recently passed legislation that requires coal be phased out of its energy mix beginning in 2030.

Investments in renewable energy are also reaching record-breaking heights — according to a United Nations report released in March, the world invested $286 billion in green energy in 2015.

These shifts seem to back up an idea that negotiators, coming out of Paris, highlighted as the real power of the agreement — that the Paris agreement is important not because it binds countries to any particular climate plan, but because it sends a signal to the global economy that renewable energy is the new smart investment.

“It’s a signal to the markets that the countries of the world are moving towards the transformation of the energy system, and are moving, and have signed on to this, and are not going back,” U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern told ThinkProgress in December, days after the agreement was finalized in Paris. “There’s this long term, durable, continually ratcheting up sense of it.”