Last week the United Nations’ headquarters in New York witnessed the signing of one of the most important agreements ever brokered on a global scale – the Paris Climate Deal, which has become the conduit with which the world aims to tackle the problem of climate change. Reaching an agreement in December was only the first step; getting countries to ratify that agreement and act on their pledges was always going to be the more complicated part of the process. The failed Kyoto protocol serves as proof that the gap between simple words and actions is vast.
On Friday the 22nd of April, 175 countries officially signed the deal, but for it to actually come into effect it now needs to be ratified by at least 55 of them, representing 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In many cases this means subjecting the deal to a vote in national legislative chambers – it’s not as simple as having the Prime Minister or President of each country give their stamp of approval. Nonetheless, the event was deemed a success because never before has an international agreement of this scope and scale garnered so many signatures in a single day, and because such widespread support shows that there is considerable political willpower and momentum driving the deal.
So what comes next?
To reach that 55% quota the Paris climate deal will need to be ratified domestically by the world’s largest polluters: China, which produces 20.1% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the United States, which produces 17.89%, Russia which produces 7.53%, India at 4.1%, Japan at 3.79%, and Canada at 1.95%. Collectively these countries account for 55.35% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and if they were all to ratify they would fulfill the necessary quota for it to come into effect immediately. At the signing ceremony China committed to doing so before this year’s G20 summit in September and the United States made a similar commitment, but while the Chinese government doesn’t have to contend with local political opposition, it is unclear how President Obama intends to get the deal approved in an election year (Americans choose their next president in November) and with both legislative houses under control of an opposition that is zealously anti-climate change. Republican politicians, the overwhelming majority of whom are climate sceptics or outright deniers, have attacked the Paris accord from the get go and pledged to block its approval if it is submitted to a vote. Elsewhere, the deal will likely face less domestic opposition. Joseph Kabila, president of Congo, pledged on behalf of the world’s 48 least developed states –the vast majority of which are in Africa– that they would ratify this year, while the European Union’s energy chief Maros Sefcovic said the EU also wants to join the first wave of countries adhering to the treaty.
… but is all of this enough?
2015 was the hottest year on record breaking many temperature records, and in only four months of 2016 the situation seems to be getting worse at an alarming rate. Scientists recently discovered that 93% of the Great Barrier Reef has suffered coral bleaching, which means coral dying out because of ocean temperature rise which was brought on this year by the El Niño phenomenon and climate change. At the other end of the planet, in the arctic, sea ice cover at its winter peak in March reached its lowest level since satellite observation began in 1979. Some regions experienced temperatures 4 to 8 degrees higher than average, making this one of the warmest winters in arctic history, and some scientists claim that this summer’s melt period may break 2012’s record for lowest arctic ice coverage ever. In fact, on a global scale, March 2016 was the hottest month ever in terms of temperature differential over 20th century averages.
All of this clashes with the uncomfortable truth that according to the UN’s own estimates, the Paris Climate deal puts us on track for up to 3 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels, far from the 2 degree limit that is supposed to be the maximum “safe level” our societies can cope with. Current estimates put global warming at around 1 degree Celsius, so if we’re already seeing significant effects on a global scale with this level of warming the possibility of going as high as 2.7 degrees is not something we should want to witness. All of this points back to the flaws in the Paris agreement: it is a good first step, but it might not be enough. The main reason being that the signing parties haven’t really addressed how they are going to radically change their economic-industrial systems to go carbon free by mid-century, the level we need to reach to remain under the 2 degree Celsius limit. If global leaders want to truly stop climate change they need to not only sign and ratify the Paris climate deal but to begin working on comprehensive, far reaching policy measures right now – measures designed to fundamentally change how our societies and our economies function.