‘Critical mass’ to support UN climate change deal

India, Canada and Mexico among countries set for early approval of Paris Agreement, in boost for climate action

(Pic: Jerry Ferguson/Flickr)


Days after talks among top oil producers to freeze global output collapsed in Doha, over 150 governments will gather in New York on Friday to sign a deal to end the fossil fuel era.

Where Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia fell out over a plan to slow the oil pumps through 2016, the UN hopes to formalise a pact to turn them off later this century.

Last December, 195 countries agreed the Paris Agreement on climate change, which committed the world to limiting global warming to well below 2C, with an aspirational target of 1.5C.

Intense negotiations between the US and China will see the world’s top two emitters of greenhouse gases sign the UN accord this week, and formally approve it later this year, say sources.

The agreement needs the support of 55 countries covering more than 55% of global emissions before it can become operational, with campaigners now hopeful it will come into force in 2017.

“I think the critical mass is really lining up,” said Eliza Northrop, an associate with the World Resources Institute, in a media call last week.

“There are a number of relatively large emitters; if they can sign on early, we can see reaching that threshold in the not just distant future.”

India, Canada, Mexico and South Africa are among the leading carbon polluters to say they will ratify the pact this year, with no word so far from Japan, Russia, Brazil or South Korea.

Internal politics means the EU has to work out how its 12% of global emissions can be shared among member states before it can formally back the deal, meaning it’s unlikely to join before 2018.

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Friday’s signing ceremony in New York has little practical value, but it’s a valuable opportunity to “keep the foot on the policymaking pedal” said veteran climate politics analyst Michael Jacobs.

“Presidents and prime ministers will have to recommit to action on carbon pricing, fossil fuel subsidy reform, and it’s the momentum around those initiatives that needs to be accelerated.”

For Jacobs, a one-time advisor to former UK prime minister Gordon Brown and advisor to the New Climate Economy project, what’s interesting is how emerging economies are taking the initiative.

After years of resisting attempts to get them to sign up to a binding UN climate treaty, leaders in Delhi and Beijing are now setting the pace in deployment of clean energy.

The Indian-led global solar alliance will be open for signing alongside the Paris Agreement, energy minister Piyush Goyal said on Monday.

In a media event where he announced solar energy was cheaper than coal, he offered developing countries free help to develop clean energy plans, arguing India was a “champion” of the poor.

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Elsewhere the Philippine chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a 40-strong coalition of countries at risk from extreme weather events, urged its members to ratify the Agreement this year.

“Entry into force of the treaty is now a key preoccupation for CVF nations,” said senator Loren Lagarda, chair of the Senate climate change committee.

A recent meeting of ministers from the 48-strong group of Least Developed Countries also ended with agreement to accelerate ratification.

That’s a blow to groups like Third World Network, which had urged developing countries to wait until they got more assurances on finance and technical support.

But writing for Climate Home this week, two influential advisors to poorer countries said governments quick to join will be best placed at future negotiations.

“It allows them to take part in developing further rules for implementing it once the agreement enters into force,” argued Achala Abeysinghe and Andrew Norton from the International Institute for Environment and Development.

“Countries who have not ratified will lose out on that process. You have to be in it to win it.”

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The immediate impact of Friday’s ceremony will be limited, especially given the absence of Barack Obama, who is instead enjoying a valedictory UK tour as US president.

Oil markets are unlikely to repeat their mini slump in the aftermath of last Sunday’s OPEC summit in Doha, when they tumbled 7% on news production levels would not be constrained.

“Companies I’ve spoken to about the implications of Paris are more focused on putting their pledges into action or analysing potential climate risks to respond to concerns from their board or investors,” said Jonathan Grant, director of PwC’s sustainability unit.

But a show of support in New York will accelerate the “pace and scale of investment of at least $1 trillion a year” in low carbon goods, said Mindy Lubber from US green business lobby Ceres.

Lubber’s group is one of a coalition representing 400 investors holding $24 trillion of assets, which says an operational Paris Agreement will encourage business to back the green economy.

In a letter sent to heads of state of 22 countries including the US, China, Germany and Saudi Arabia, the investor network urges faster progress on carbon progress, green regulations and axing fossil fuel subsidies.

“Countries that accede early to the Paris Agreement will benefit from increased regulatory certainty, which will help attract the trillions of investments to support the low-carbon transition,” it reads.

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Still, as global temperature records continue to be smashed month-by-month, many remain frustrated at the slow pace of global action.

Earlier this month outgoing UN climate chief Christiana Figueres told a meeting in London the Paris deal was 10 years too late.

“We are two minutes to midnight,” she said, stressing the 2015 UN deal was simply a “blueprint” that would need deep political and technical investment over years to make it a reality.

Last week the heads of the World Bank, IMF and Bank of England were among those warning of the dangers of a late transition away from fossil fuels.

A recent Oxford University study advised that all new energy infrastructure needs to be low carbon from 2017, to avoid locking in dangerous levels of emissions.

Campaigners and climate scientists point to an El Nino-boosted drought across Africa, searing heat in India and declining levels of Arctic winter sea ice as evidence climate impacts are already hitting.

And this week Bill McKibben from 350, one of the largest climate campaign groups, wrote of plans next month to commit civil disobedience in the US, UK, Germany, Brazil, Nigeria and Australia.

“That’s because all around the world this month the world’s coral reefs are turning bone white, bleached by record ocean temperatures. Researchers report crying in their scuba masks as they dive, unable to cope with the death of entire ecosystems,” he said.

“Climate change is the biggest thing human beings have ever done, and in this hottest of all years we’re moving to the very edge of catastrophe. Our political and economic systems aren’t working fast enough. They need a non-violent jolt.”

Read more on: COP21 | UN climate talks