UN’s Paris climate deal could enter into force this year

Operational UN global warming pact would be a significant step on path to a safe and stable climate, but requires careful management says former Marshall Islands advisor

View of the UN General Assembly Hall in New York (Pic: UN Photos)

View of the UN General Assembly Hall in New York (Pic: UN Photos)

By Michael Dobson

The Paris Climate Agreement could become operational by the end of 2016.

This would be well before many of the diplomats who negotiated it (and the journalists who covered it) would have expected, but it is the inescapable conclusion of a careful reading of the deal and accompanying documents.

While the official mandate under which countries negotiated the Agreement stated that it was to “come into effect and be implemented from 2020” – and while numerous draft versions contained language that would have delayed entry into force until that date – the final version of the Agreement contains no such restriction.

Instead, as adopted, states agreed simply that it will enter into force thirty days after at least 55 countries, representing at least 55% of global emissions, ratify it.

Taken together, China and the United States account for nearly 40% of global emissions.

If both ratify the Agreement this year – and they announced on Thursday that that they will each take “respective domestic steps” to do just that – entry into force will require only a further 53 countries (out of a remaining 193) representing a further 17% of global emissions.

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The process for domestic ratification of an international agreement varies from country to country, and can, in some cases, require many months or even years.

But where strong political will exists to proceed quickly with domestic ratification processes, it can all happen much more quickly.

For example, three Pacific nations on the frontline – Fiji, Palau and the Republic of the Marshall Islands – have already completed the necessary domestic steps for ratification.

While entry into force well before 2020 would need to be navigated carefully through some potentially tricky procedural issues (discussed below), it would be a profoundly significant step forward on the path to a safe and stable climate.

Paris climate deal: News, analysis and commentary

The Paris Agreement contains binding obligations for all states to act on climate, including by setting emission reduction targets, taking steps to achieve those targets, and reporting in a transparent manner on how they are tracking towards achieving them.

It also imposes a collective obligation on the world to peak emissions as soon as possible, and on the developed world to support the developing world financially to accelerate efforts to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change impacts.

The sooner those obligations have the force of international law, the better for all of us, and the more confident governments, business and communities will be to fast-track climate action.

Bending the global emissions curve steeply downwards is the Paris Agreement’s core purpose: transforming the world’s energy system away from fossil fuels fast enough to protect the lives of millions of vulnerable people.

Paris: African roots

In December 2011, two years after the collapse of the Copenhagen Climate Conference, the world’s climate negotiators met in Durban, South Africa, and agreed to try again: to “launch a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force”. Under this decision, subsequently referred to as the “Durban Mandate”, countries agreed to complete negotiations “as early as possible but no later than 2015 in order to adopt [the Agreement] at the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties and for it to come into effect and be implemented from 2020” (emphasis added).

Last December countries negotiated on the implicit understanding that the Paris Agreement would be agreed in 2015, and come into effect in 2020.

This understanding was so well entrenched that several news organizations, reporting on the Agreement after talks in Paris concluded, referred to it as the “post-2020 Paris Agreement” or stated that it would “come into being in 2020”.

It appears, however, that it was not only journalists who were caught off-guard by the removal of any language delaying entry into force to 2020 – it was also negotiators themselves.

This is clear from Decision 1.CP/21, which accompanied the Paris Agreement, and which sets out how countries will negotiate and agree the rules and procedures for the new institutions and mechanisms that will come into being under the Agreement.

The details of how those institutions will operate were not agreed in Paris; instead, it seems negotiators assumed they would have another five years to work them out.

Decoding the Paris climate deal: What does it mean?

For example, the Paris Agreement establishes an “enhanced transparency framework”, which will ensure that all countries report in a robust manner on their domestic emission reductions.

The Agreement states that the rules for this framework will be adopted at the first “meeting of the parties to the Paris Agreement”, which will occur at the end of the year in which it enters into force.

Decision 1.CP/21, however, states that the transparency rules should be considered at COP24 – that is, in 2018 – before being forwarded to the first meeting of the parties.

In other words, there is an understanding that the Paris Agreement will not enter into force until 2018 at the earliest. The transparency framework is not the only area in which Decision 1.CP/21 makes this assumption.

In relation to capacity building, the decision explicitly launches “a work plan for the period 2016-2020”.

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While these mixed messages might create some confusion, they are far from insurmountable, and can be pragmatically resolved.

As a matter of international law, the Paris Agreement, being a treaty-level instrument, will trump Decision 1.CP/21, as well as the Durban Mandate.

Countries will thus be able to take decisions to amend the work program to ensure that all necessary rules and procedures can be negotiated and agreed by the time the Agreement enters into force, and the first meeting of its parties is held.

Only those Parties who have already ratified the Paris Agreement will be able to participate formally, thereby creating a strong incentive for countries to ratify quickly to ensure that they can take part in adopting the first set of rules and mechanisms under the new Agreement.

The race to ratify

Following Thursday’s commitment from the world’s two biggest emitters to bring the Paris Agreement into force “as early as possible”, it is incumbent on other countries to step up and make an equivalent commitment.

The era of fossil fuels must be brought to an end, and quickly. Doing so will require aggressive action at all levels – but the global pact that is designed to sit above all of these efforts, imposing a legally binding obligation on all countries to act, is the Paris Agreement.

To discover that it can be brought into force years earlier than expected is hopefully a rude shock to the fossil fuel industry.

For everyone else, it should be a cause for considerable excitement – and action.

Michael Dobson is a PhD student in Global Politics at the New School for Social Research, and a former climate advisor to the Marshall Islands. Follow him on twitter @michaeldobsonNZ

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