Tipping the Balance: US and China Ratify Paris Agreement

Late Friday night, China and the U.S. announced that they formally joined the Paris Agreement. This momentous announcement tips the balance towards 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.
Source: UNFCCC (accessed September 6, 2016)

China and the U.S. together are responsible for over 38 percent of global emissions, so 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.

Paris Agreement signed by President Barack Obama
Source: whitehouse.gov

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) had been 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 pursuing current efforts from the White House to reduce GHG 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.

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, without the “intended” for contributions announced after December 2015), 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 emission reduction commitments, denoted “Paris – Continued Ambition” on the chart below had only a 50 percent chance to keep 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 1.5-2-degree range. The 2 degrees of global warming threshold is considered by a majority of climate scientists the upper limit for global warming to avoid severe and irreversible consequences.

Emissions pathways and temperature probabilities
Source: UMD and PNNL joint study, Dec 2015.

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 2020-2025 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.

Towards 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 emission reduction policies and climate finance. The announcement from the US and China paves the way for growing momentum ahead of the next Conference of the Parties (COP 22) in Marrakech, Morrocco, with a renewed focus on implementation and adaptation.