A global agreement to combat climate change will take force after support from European nations sent the accord across an important threshold on Wednesday (5 October), prompting US President Barack Obama to hail it as a “historic day” for protecting the planet.
European nations, Canada, Bolivia and Nepal raised backing for the 2015 Paris Agreement to countries representing 56.87% of world greenhouse gas emissions, above the 55% needed for implementation, a United Nations website showed.
The deal will formally start in 30 days on 4 November, four days before the US presidential election in which Republican Donald Trump opposes the accord and Democrat Hillary Clinton strongly supports it.
China and the United States joined up last month in a joint step by the world’s top emitters.
Obama called Wednesday “a historic day in the fight to protect our planet for future generations” and he told reporters on the White House Rose Garden: “If we follow through on the commitments that this Paris agreement embodies, history may well judge it as a turning point for our planet.”
Germany, France, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Portugal and Malta – European Union nations which have completed domestic ratification and account for about 4% of emissions – formally signed up on Wednesday ( October).
In total, 73 countries out of 195 have ratified the agreement, according to the UN website.
“Great job!” tweeted European Climate Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete.
— Miguel Arias Cañete (@MAC_europa) October 5, 2016
EU ‘didn’t want to be upstaged’
The Europeans brought forward a formal submission of documents to the United Nations from a ceremony planned on Friday, fearing that other nations might ratify and trigger entry into force without them.
“We didn’t want to be upstaged,” an EU diplomat said.
Many praised the rapid ratification of an agreement meant to cut global greenhouse gas emissions, mainly from burning fossil fuels, to limit floods, droughts, more powerful storms and rising ocean levels.
“What once seemed unthinkable is now unstoppable,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement.
By contrast, it took eight years for the previous UN climate deal, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, to gain enough backing to take effect. It obliged only rich nations to cut emissions and the United States stayed out of it.
Opposition in the US Congress
But opposition continues in the Republican-controlled US Congress to Democrat Obama’s climate change policies.
“The Paris climate deal would be disastrous for the American economy,” said House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican.
By contrast, Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever and Chairman of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, said ratification showed that a shift to a low-carbon economy is “urgent, inevitable, and accelerating faster than we ever believed possible”.
Pledges insufficient for 2°C target
Still, current national pledges for cuts in emissions are insufficient to achieve a Paris goal of limiting a rise in world temperatures to “well below” two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times.
UN studies project that average world temperatures are set to rise by 3 degrees or more by 2100, based on current trends. And this year is expected to prove the warmest since records began in the 19th century, beating 2015.
Reaching the 2°C target will require a breakneck, wholesale shift across the globe away from fossil fuels towards clean sources of energy.
And even that will not be enough: we will have to learn how to suck carbon out of the air, say scientists.
“It is no exaggeration to say we are in a race against time,” said Thoriq Ibrahim, Environment Minister for the Maldives and Chair of the Alliance of Small Island States which fears the impact of rising sea levels.
100 concrete rules still to be decided
The Paris accord’s early validation comes just in time to take centre stage at high-level UN talks in Marrakesh next month tasked with translating its planet-saving vision into policy.
It could also accelerate the process.
“This shifts the focus to implementation and strengthening the commitments under the agreement,” said Alden Meyer, a veteran climate analyst at the Washington-based Union for Concerned Scientists.
Countries have informally set a 2018 target for hammering out more than 100 concrete rules and procedures embedded in the climate pact – some of them highly contentious.
Originally, the agreement left open a four-year window for that process.
“Many details need to be ironed out before implementation can begin,” said Harjeet Singh, head of climate change for ActionAid.
They include rules for reporting and verification of emissions cuts, how to disburse hundreds of billions of dollars to climate-vulnerable developing nations, and the establishment of new market mechanisms.
‘North star’ alliance
Even more important, 2018 is shaping up to be a crucial “political moment” when countries will feel pressure to revise and deepen voluntary pledges for slashing carbon pollution.
At their current level, these so-called “nationally determined contributions” – which don’t kick in until 2020 – fall woefully short of the target, and would result in an unlivable 3.0 C planet by century’s end.
Bolstered by a special report from the UN’s climate science panel, to be completed by mid-2018, the world’s major greenhouse gas emitters will also be expected to deliver detailed national plans, or “pathways”, for economic transformation through 2050.
“If you are going to achieve the objectives in Paris, you need a north star that gives you the direction of travel,” said Meyer, adding that the United States, Germany and Canada have taken the lead on this.
That north star will likewise be a visible to corporations and business leaders, who realise that they ignore it at their peril.
The new treaty “sends an unmistakable signal to business and investors that the global transition to a low-carbon economy is urgent, inevitable, and accelerating faster than we ever believed possible,” Unilever’s Polman said in a statement.