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Experts tracking the agreement closely are riveted with the development. But those of us who aren’t as familiar with the bureaucratic inner workings of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) may still have more questions than answers.
Since no one wants to be a step behind at the office happy hour, we gathered up a cheat sheet to today’s signing ceremony and what’s next for the Paris Agreement. Read on to get informed quickly, and maybe impress the boss while you’re at it.
Wait, didn’t we just do this in December?
In short: No. The big news on Dec. 12 that prompted cheering and champagne-popping was the formal “adoption” of the Paris Agreement by the U.N. Conference of Parties (COP). This is just a fancy way of saying that all parties present at the COP21 climate talks in Paris agreed on the language of the agreement and what would happen next.
Okay, so what happens now?
Today’s events are the next step in the agreement’s journey. Earth Day, April 22, marked the first day that world leaders were able to formally sign the agreement — hence the hoopla in New York.
Leaders from all 195 countries present at COP21 were invited to the U.N. headquarters for the official signing ceremony, and the World Resources Institute reports that 175 made the trip. The signing period will stay open for a year, until April 21, 2017 (other leaders are expected to sign between now and then).
Keep in mind that the pen-to-paper aspect of signing the agreement is purely ceremonial. To officially join the agreement, nations must issue their formal “instruments of ratification” — which is a fancy way of saying they agree to be bound by the terms of the agreement. And no, this isn’t as simple as a head of state’s “okay.”
Most countries will sign the agreement “subject to ratification, acceptance and approval,” making their signature conditional on obtaining the required domestic approval for joining the agreement, the World Resources Institute (WRI) reports. In some countries, like Australia, this is as simple as presenting the agreement before Parliament. Others, like Mexico, require Senate approval. The U.S. can enter into “executive agreements,” which — with gridlock in Congress — is the most likely scenario.
After heads of state jump through their respective legal hoops, they then return to the COP and issue their instrument of ratification, also called an instrument of “ratification, acceptance and approval,” to officially become parties to the agreement.
At a press conference this afternoon, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced that 175 nations signed the agreement in New York, the WRI reports. These signatories include the world’s top three greenhouse gas emitters: the U.S., China and the EU. India, the world’s No. 4 emitter, was a question-mark going into the proceedings, but the South Asian nation also agreed to sign. As did Russia, another country many analysts weren’t sure about.
Most of these signatories will go back home to gain approval for the agreement before formally ratifying. Only 15 parties formally joined the agreement in New York today. Representing a mere 0.04 percent of global emissions, the vast majority of these joining states are small island nations, including the Maldives, Palau, Fiji and 11 Caribbean states, as well as Somalia in East Africa.
Is the agreement now legally binding?
Again, not so fast. In order for the agreement to go into effect and become legally binding, at least 55 countries representing 55 percent of global emissions need to formally join. Only 15 nations ratified today, and they represent a small sliver of emissions, so we still have a long way to go.
The signing period will be open for a year, and the states that signed today can formally join the agreement any time during that period. In the chart above, the World Resources Institute details three possible scenarios in which we could meet the ratification target.
To keep tabs on the progress of the agreement, who’s signing and who’s joining, check out this interactive tracker from the WRI. The institute is also live-blogging the proceedings all day, so keep an eye on this page for up-to-the-minute announcements.
So, then why is everyone making such a big deal of this?
No one expected us to reach the target of 55 joining nations today, but experts agreed that a strong showing of signatories was crucial to the long-term success of the agreement.
The 175 heads of state who opted to sign outpaced almost all estimates. And get this: It’s the largest number of representatives who have ever signed an international agreement on the day of a signing ceremony, the WRI reports.
“When all is said and done, today will be the largest one-day signing event in the history of the U.N.,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement this afternoon.
The future of the Paris Agreement
“The climate focus now pivots from diplomacy to implementation,” said Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the World Resources Institute.
These signing nations have already submitted their plans to implement the agreement, legally dubbed their intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs). Now, they have to gain approval from their respective governments and begin enacting policy to make good on their promises. This will present significant challenges, and we can’t rest on our laurels, experts said.
“The challenge is to find ways to work together to accelerate the work already begun by national governments, mayors, CEOs, civil society groups and citizens around the world. As more than 20 countries have shown, we can grow our economies without also increasing emissions,” Steer said.
Others added that, while the pledges made by governments are a great start, they don’t go nearly far enough to limit global emissions and help vulnerable populations adapt to climate change.
“If all of today’s public climate adaptation finance were to be divided among the world’s 1.5 billion smallholder farmers in developing countries, they would get around $3 each a year to cope with climate change,” Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, said in a statement.
The good news is that governments are rising to the challenge. Some noteworthy announcements include:
- Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plans to crowdsource climate action solutions with a new online platform.
- New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that every new car the city government purchases will be an electric vehicle. And all new buildings constructed in New York City will be required to be 60 to 80 percent more efficient than current buildings.
- Liu Zhenya, chairman of the State Grid Corporation of China, said he expects renewables to represent 80 percent of China’s total energy consumption by 2050.
- More than 80 Muslim leaders presented the Islamic Climate Change Declaration before the U.N. and created the Global Muslim Climate Network, which pledges to mobilize the Muslim community around climate action.
More will likely trickle in throughout the day, so keep an eye on WRI’s live blog for updates.
While the road ahead may be long and bumpy, today’s strong showing should banish any worries that Paris would become another Copenhagen.
As former U.S. Vice President and climate action figurehead Al Gore put it: The “historic journey” to eradicating climate change begins today.