What Do You Mean “We Don’t Have a Paris Agreement”?

It’s been around two months since more than 190 countries signed on to the COP21 climate agreement in Paris. Except, technically they didn’t. As we battle out in fierce debates of whether the Paris agreement was a failure or flop, it’s sometimes easy to forget that nobody has actually signed on to anything yet.

In Paris we achieved the “adoption” of the international agreement—this is the process by which we establish the content, detail and form of what the agreement will entail. In other words, we decided what we plan to sign on to. The process whereby countries can actually sign (more technically termed “ratify”) doesn’t begin until April this year. The United Nations meet in New York on April 22nd where Heads of State can officially sign on to the agreement; nations are given a year’s deadline (until April 2017) to do so. Even then, signing doesn’t necessarily mean a country is included in the agreement—they then need to pursue their own domestic review and approval process, and report back to say that all domestic processes have been cleared*.

For the Paris agreement to officially come into action (i.e. become live), countries agreed on an “entry into force” mandate that 55 parties covering 55% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would have to join. If this requirement wasn’t met, the entire Paris deal would fall through and would cease to exist. I mentioned it in a previous blog post while the “entry into force” mandates were still being negotiated: 55% global emissions coverage is far too low. You can’t tackle the issue working with barely half of the world’s emissions. Plus, those signed on within that 55% would surely drop out pretty rapidly when they realised their efforts were being dwarfed by their counterparts.

55% Paris

Source: http://www.wri.org/blog/2016/01/after-cop21-what-needs-happen-paris-agreement-take-effect?

So, given the fact that no one has signed the agreement yet, why have so many been celebrating like the deal is sealed? In short: it pretty much has been. I tend to err on the side of caution, however, this is one situation where I’m nearly 100% certain that most (if not all) of the parties in Paris will eventually sign the agreement. For most nations, the international backlash for choosing not to, would be too large. That’s one additional reason I’m pleased the reception to the details of the agreement has been so positive (there has been plenty of criticism too, but the majority has been on the mid-ground to optimistic side of the spectrum). If the reaction had been overwhelmingly negative, we’d be offering nations a prime opportunity to back out: “the consensus says that it’s doomed to fail anyway, so what’s the point of signing?”.

Having all nations sign might be a push too far, however, the 55 parties covering 55% of global emissions should be easily met. That’s why the following figures (see below) posted by the World Resources Institute (WRI) are largely speculative—I’d like to think we won’t have to calculate how far we are from 55% coverage. The figures are, nonetheless, another very interesting highlight of how much of our global emissions are dominated by a select few parties.

Some of the key stand-outs include:

  • You can’t have an agreement if neither of the biggest three parties (China, the US and EU) sign. It has always been apparent that realistically you can’t begin to tackle climate change without these parties, however, even the UN framework provides this mandate;
  • The 55 parties rule is an interesting one, and understandably intended by the UN to make the agreement truly global. See the top left pie chart, for example—even though China, the US and EU nearly meet the 55% coverage on their own, they’d still need another 52 parties to join (despite their collective emissions only adding about 10%);
  • The top-right pie chart is unrealistic: the EU is still mourning the loss of its neighbours in Kyoto, and has been one of the few parties trying to push for more ambitious targets. If any party was to drop out, it wouldn’t be them;
  • If China and the US both refused to sign the agreement (a scenario that would have seemed realistic, or even likely, in the past), nearly all other nations would have to sign to surpass the 55% threshold (as shown in the bottom pie chart);
  • The 55% requirement is based on current GHG emissions and takes no account of projected emissions growth. This underplays the influence of large growing nations (it was India in particular who brought my attention to it). Granted that basing figures on projected growth would be challenging and divisive to do, however, one of the key failures of the Kyoto Protocol was a failure to properly address the rapid emissions growth of large nations such as China and India, which eventually surpassed most developed nations.

55% Scenarios.png

Source: http://www.wri.org/blog/2016/01/after-cop21-what-needs-happen-paris-agreement-take-effect?

As I mentioned, speculation about these figures are largely redundant since I expect the mandates will be easily met within the next year. Still, it’s still a revealing exercise to study the different scenario options (and how the fate of the agreement falls largely in the hands of a few key parties). Keeping a detailed eye on how the nitty-gritty of the UN and legal processes operate and evolve has been a steep learning curve. I doubt there will be any substitute for keeping up-to-date with these progressions in real-time—it develops an understanding of how international governance structures operate in a way that I simply couldn’t (and didn’t) gain from reading about past agreements such as Kyoto. The small, but crucial, aspects of the process were lost on me.


*This requirement made – what seemed like tedious bickering over non-essential fine-print – the legal wording of the specifics of the agreement extremely important (and led to the awkward final moments when the US raised the “should-shall” controversy). These minor fine-print details play a large influence in the domestic review process, and in case of the US would determine whether it had to be approved by Congress (a potentially make-or-break scenario).



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