An Historic Day at the UN

A world record will be set for global agreements today. An expected 165 governments are set to sign the Paris Agreement on climate change at UN Headquarters here in New York. (The previous record was set by the Law of the Sea treaty in 1982, when 119 countries gathered in Montego Bay.)

The signing ceremony is just the first step in the legal process that leads to the Agreement actually entering into force. This process is happening much quicker than anyone expected, and the mood here is decidedly upbeat. Christiana Figueres, head of the UN climate change body governing the agreement, aptly said yesterday during a conversation with French Minister of Ecology Segolene Royal,  “we’re not talking about where the rubber hits the’s now, where the sun hits the panel.”

John Kerry brings his granddaughter to the signing ceremony. She witnesses history. Stuart Ramson/UN Dispatch
John Kerry brings his granddaughter to the signing ceremony. She witnesses history. Stuart Ramson/UN Dispatch

History in the Making

The document being signed today has been 21 years in the making – that’s over two decades of annual negotiations and countless quarterly meetings by scientists, diplomats, environment ministers – all attended by environmental activists, private sector professionals, and journalists.  

What began as an idealistic goal according to some reached rock bottom in 2009 when the Copenhagen round of climate talks collapsed. Developing countries walked out of the negotiating room because of a disagreement over the crux of this whole document: how do countries change their economies to not only mitigate greenhouse gas emissions but pay developing countries for the damage that has already been done?

Luckily, all hope was not lost. Negotiations resumed and what was a 300-page mess in Denmark was eventually whittled down to a svelte 31 pages by the time French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius gaveled the meeting on December 12, 2015.

Signing, Ratifying, and Entry into Force

Justin Trudeau was one of scores of heads of state to address the UN today. (Nice tie, too. Purple for Prince?)
Justin Trudeau was one of scores of heads of state to address the UN today. (Nice tie, too. Purple for Prince?)

Of course, signing on to the Paris Agreement is as historic a moment as the end of the December talks. It’s just a first step though.

The next step in the process is to “deposit instruments of ratification,” as they say in UN jargon. This means that world leaders have gone back to their Parliaments and domestic legislative bodies and said they want their environmental policy to be governed by the terms set out in Paris. Once that body agrees with that decision, according to each country’s laws, their representatives can deposit a document at the UN that says the Paris Agreement was approved.

As Royal pointed out earlier today, that’s not the end: “we must keep the pressure on to get the signatures and accession needed to bring the Paris Agreement into force.” What she means is that at least 55 countries that also account for 55% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions have to ratify or “join” the document for it to go into action.

According to Selwin Hart, Director of the Secretary General’s Climate Change Support Team, some countries will go through a ratification process and others do not have to do so. The U.S. actually fought until the very last minute to get language changed in Paris so that the Obama administration would not have to take the Paris Agreement through Congress and just be able to “join.” 

In a stroke of good news, the U.S. and China – two of the most polluting countries in the world, have indicated that they would do so. At least 10 small island developing nations, like Fiji, have indicated they already went through the ratification process in their governments and are ready for the agreement to be put into action.

So, we’ve solved climate change?

No, but we’re getting there.

Despite the rapid pace at which some nations are moving to ratify or join the Agreement – Hart said it has been “happening much faster than anyone expected” – parties actually have until 2020 to put the Agreement into force. Though, all estimates by UN officials point to the process getting done by 2017.

That leaves time for the mountain of work ahead, especially in terms of money.

Developing countries were not completely happy with the outcome. One of the bigger objections they have is that there is no specific mention of the $100 billion in financing developed countries agreed to make available by 2020 and every year after that to help developing countries adapt to climate damage. (However, the Agreement does state that $100 billion is the floor and financing will be scaled up by 2020.)

There’s also the matter of regulating private sector companies and getting them to reduce their emissions through some sort of carbon market system or regulations. Depending on the country and industries, one may be easier than the other.

Overall however, the signing today is one of those rare global victories. It’s not perfect, but it’s done and climate change is officially a major priority for some of the world’s biggest polluters – even China according to Figueres.

From the low of Copenhagen to riding the momentum of Paris, the diplomats and the broader climate change community will hopefully come up with ways to address gaps in financing and emissions regulations to make the Paris Agreement as effective as possible.

For today, though, the simple act of putting 165 pens to paper is worthy is the first key step in that process.