The historic deal negotiated at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris last December required ratification by 55 countries, representing 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions before it could go into effect. This double threshold was passed this week when the EU, Canada, and a number of smaller states officially ratified the agreement. To date, according to the UN, 72 countries representing more than 56% of emissions have signed on to the deal including the US, China, and India – the world’s three largest carbon polluters.
The aim of this international agreement is to limit global warming to 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels. To achieve this goal, it employs a mix of voluntary and legally binding actions. While every country submitted their own emissions reduction plan known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), there was no requirement quantifying the amount of greenhouse gases they had to cut or how it had to be done. Additionally, there are no penalties for those who do not live up to their promises. Instead, the accord depends heavily on global peer pressure and the hope that no country wants to be seen as a slacker in the eyes of the world.
Based on the current collection of national plans, which vary widely in ambition, this agreement will only cut greenhouse gas emissions by about half of what is necessary to reach the 2°C (3.6°F) goal. The accord, however, does legally obligate countries to publically report how much emissions they have actually eliminated and to reassess their plans every five years.
While flawed, the Paris Accord is the world’s first truly global climate agreement. It marks the culmination of a very long, and often tumultuous, international political process that began at the Rio Earth Summit 24 years ago. That said, the hard part still lies ahead.
Individual nations need to stay the course and implement the commitments in their NDCs. The framework needed to monitor and report on these independent undertakings will be negotiated at the next UN Climate Change Conference (COP22) in Marrakesh, Morocco this November. The Paris Agreement will come into force on November 4th.