U.S. and China Ratify Paris Agreement: A Tipping Point?

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Late Friday night, China and the U.S. formally joined the Paris Agreement. This momentous announcement tips the balance toward a quick entry into force of the Agreement by the end of 2016 — if not by the end of September.

The Paris Agreement requires 55 percent of the 180 signatories to ratify or formally join, representing more than 55 percent of global emissions. The UNFCCC ratification status tracker, last updated as of Friday afternoon, counted 26 parties accounting for 39 percent of emissions.

26 Parties have ratified of 197 Parties to the Convention. Accounting for 39.06% of global GHG emissions.

China and the U.S. together are responsible for over 38 percent of global emissions. Their commitment pushed the emissions from signatories to 75 percent, well over the 55 percent threshold. Securing the missing 27 country signatures will be not a problem now that the U.S. and China have confirmed their commitment. The next wave of ratification is expected later this month, as countries gather in New York City for the annual General Assembly of the United Nations on Sept. 19.

The Paris Agreement announcement came late at night, on the eve of a long holiday weekend in the U.S., indicating that the Obama administration was eager to avoid media attention and not turn this decision into a presidential campaign talking point. The administration has consistently argued that the Paris Agreement was not a treaty since it did not impose any legally-binding constraint to the U.S. This interpretation ruffled feathers in Europe at the time the document was negotiated in late 2015, but enabled the administration to proceed with formally ‘joining’ the agreement with a signature from the president, without having to submit the document to ratification of the Senate.

Senate ratification (or lack thereof) was the kiss of death for the Kyoto Protocol, and U.S. climate negotiators were intent to avoid involving the Republican-controlled Senate, which would undoubtedly oppose ratification. This accelerated procedure does, however, make the future of the Paris Agreement fully dependent upon the next U.S. president, since that same signature can be undone just as easily.

Hillary Clinton has committed to pursue current efforts from the White House to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build resilience, while Donald Trump has made contradictory statements about climate science and announced he would pull out of the Paris Agreement if elected. Given current polls and forecasts for the November 2016 elections, we expect the U.S. will stand by its commitment to the Paris Agreement for the next four years. But it’s too soon to tell.

Will it be enough?

The quick entry into force of the Paris Agreement is critical for many reasons. First, reducing emissions aggressively and early-on is the most effective way to prevent catastrophic impacts from climate change. Many scientists consider the commitments under the Paris Agreement to be insufficient to stop climate change. These commitments, known as intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs or NDCs), are due to be updated every five years, which leaves the door open to more aggressive emission reductions in the future.

A joint study from the University of Maryland and the Pacific Northwest National Lab showed that the current emissions-reduction commitments, denoted “Paris – Continued Ambition” on the chart below, carry only a 50 percent chance of keeping global warming under 2 degrees Celsius.

Countries would have to increase their policy ambitions and reduce emissions much more drastically to have a shot at keeping global warming in the 1.5- to 2-degree range. The 2-degree threshold is considered by a majority of climate scientists as the upper limit for global warming to avoid severe and irreversible consequences.

Emissions pathways and temperature probabilities

The other reason for which a quick entry into force of the Paris Agreement could be a game-changer is the amount of adaptation finance it could help unlock. The Agreement sets a goal of mobilizing $100 billion a year between 2020 and 2025 in climate finance, both for mitigation and adaptation. This money is much needed to engage in ambitious adaptation projects in developing countries, where the impacts of climate change are expected to be most harmful.

Toward Marrakech

Climate policy remains high on the agenda for global leaders — from the Paris Agreement to the G20 statement this weekend, which “reaffirmed” the G20 countries’ commitment to address climate change through emissions-reduction policies and climate finance.

The announcement from the U.S. and China paves the way for growing momentum ahead of the next Conference of the Parties (COP22) in Marrakech, Morrocco, with a renewed focus on implementation and concrete actions.

Image credits: 1) whitehouse.gov; 2) UNFCCC (accessed September 6, 2016); 3) UMD and PNNL joint study, Dec 2015.

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Emilie Mazzacurati

Emilie Mazzacurati is CEO of Four Twenty Seven (www.427mt.com), an award-winning market research and advisory firm that brings climate intelligence into economic and financial decision-making. Founded in 2012 and based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Four Twenty Seven helps Fortune 500 companies, investors and government institutions understand how to quantify and monetize climate change impacts on operations as well as social factors that affect their value chain.

2 responses

  1. Please better explain the chart (picture 2) versus the text near it; it appears unclear/contradictory/not supporting.
    The only way I see to reconcile the 26/197 signatories and 39%/100% emissions in the chart with the “27 missing country signatures” and the “75%” emissions reached is that the chart is showing the status BEFORE the U.S. and China signed (i.e. after could be 39%+38% = 77%), and that each country has MULTIPLE signatories (i.e. 197-27-26=144 for U.S. and China alone)…
    It would have been much clearer to show the two metrics in both a “before” and an “after” visual (on on the same slider, but in different colors), to clarify the impact, and to explain signatory vs. country.

  2. I appreciated reading the article which gave a simple and straightforward account of where the Paris Accord and its implementation stand. I’m all in favor of understanding the causes of climate change and working to manage/modify its adverse effects. However, my examination of the data that has led to the conclusion that CO2/GHG emissions are the main cause of global warming/climate change has indicated to me that this conclusion is incorrect and will not significantly lead to managing/modifying global warming/climate change. Consequently, I was happy to read that implementation of the Accord is not yet a given.

    Examination of published global temperature data over the years may be misleading because they are not raw data but include assumptions and averaging to come up with a global average. To me, it would be more accurate/informative to use the average of raw temperatures for a given location and then use these to generate global data. In this way more could be learned about regional differences.

    With regard to causes for global warming/climate change, atmospheric CO2/GHGs were the main causes examined (maybe the result of directed project funding?). Other potential terrestrial or extraterrestrial causes have not been adequately examined. The most recent El Nino which was the strongest/warmest of recent history, was caused by an intense warming of the southern Pacific Ocean. The most likely source of this heat is from core magma at the ocean depths which is consistent with seismic and volcanic activity in the region. Unfortunately, temperature probes capable of measurement at the ocean depths are not yet in use. I believe the warmer temperatures of the last two years are associated with the El Nino.

    Human activity other than CO2/GHGs does have some responsibility for global warming/climate change. California and the US west coast are a prime example. Inadequate planning over the last half century to accommodate the large increase in population, agriculture and industry has resulted in their needs for water far outstripping the natural supply. This has led to drought conditions and forest fires which have contributed to the overall warming. Early development and implementation of desalination would likely have averted this.

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