The Paris Agreement looks set to become the most substantial commitment to address climate change made in recent times, and its historic credentials have been bolstered by the US and China’s decisions to ratify the agreement. Here I take a look at the basics of the agreement, and what new developments mean for world politics and environmental policy.
It was announced last Saturday morning that the US and China are to ratify the critical climate deal reached in December of last year. The agreement is the latest commitment under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, requiring the ratification of 55 countries comprising over 55% of global emissions to be brought into legal activation. Before Saturday only 23 states – accounting for a mere 1% of international emissions – had ratified according to the UNFCC. But the involvement of two of the world’s biggest states – and polluters – is a sign of the future viability of the agreement.
Changing approaches to climate?
At the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China, the two countries declared their intention to ratify. The emissions of the US and China approximately 40% of global totals, and it is emissions which are being singularly targeted in the agreement as part of attempts to limit climate change. The deal’s main commitment is to limiting the average global temperature increase to under 2˚C, predominantly through reductions in greenhouse gases and the development of carbon sinks.
The agreement opened for signing on the 22nd April this year, and UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon issued an open invitation for countries to ratify the treaty on the 21st September, as part of attempts to ensure early enforcement of the agreement (UN). It is now hoped that the agreement will become law before the end of 2016. Ratification is the official confirmation of an agreement, validating it in a legal sense.
Obama vs. Trump
President Obama’s step to ratify could be a form of political insurance against the fallout of Donald Trump’s potential election. For the presidential candidate has been notoriously hostile to the Paris negotiations, stating that he would revise the terms of the agreement if he was successful in his election bid. But America’s early ratification is a safeguard against possibly reactionary climate policy on the part of Trump. For if the agreement is entered into force, the countries involved in ratifying it are legally bound to uphold their commitments for four years.
Oliver Milman reported on Trump’s singular resistance to what are now considered established facts (‘Donald Trump would be world’s only leader to reject climate science’). The article quoted Trump asserting that climate change was a ‘hoax’, ‘created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.’ However, Obama’s decision in forwarding the enforcement of the Paris Agreement can be seen as a step to counteract Trump’s intervention in the scheme. Trump’s sceptic climate politics should now be forestalled, if enough member states ratify. Regardless of what now happens in November, US climate policy should now have the buffer of UN involvement.
It has also been suggested that he will decommission the Environmental Protection Agency. The Sierra Club, an American environmental NGO, suggested that Trump’s viewpoint on climate would estrange the US from world politics and crucial international relationships. But Obama’s latest step as he nears the end of his presidency carries more than legislative significance. The declared commitment of the US is a commitment to reversing the effects of climate change and is a validation of concern for environmental issues.
UK involvement and the future of the deal
The response of the UK government under Theresa May is now anticipated; many see the latest developments of the Paris Agreement as reason for the UK to accelerate their ratification. The decisions of the US and China have been viewed as progressive and as an argument for the UK to assert its environmental credibility. Dr Douglas Parr of Greenpeace stated: ‘there are no excuses left for the government to delay the ratification of the Paris deal, least of all Brexit. If anything, the UK has never been more in need to demonstrate it’s a reliable partner on its international commitments’ (‘Pressure grows on the UK as China and US jointly ratify Paris climate change agreement’).
The Paris Agreement is working as a touchstone of environmental credibility, and political credibility more broadly. Each nation seems anxious to prove that they can compete in terms of green credentials on the world stage. There may now be a race to ratify in order to demonstrate this.
The latest events point to the now probable future of the Paris Agreement, and show that the ambition of the deal is ever closer to realisation. It now remains for the UK government to step up to the challenge of committing to the deal they have helped negotiate. It also remains to be seen whether or not the Paris Agreement will have far-reaching consequences for the planet and not simply for politics.