US and China ratify Paris climate pact, leaving EU behind

The Paris agreement is an opportunity to limit global warming to 1.5°C. [UNclimatechange/Flickr]

The United States has joined China to formally ratify the Paris agreement to curb climate-warming emissions, the world’s two biggest economies said on Saturday, which could help put the pact into force before the end of the year.

US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping submitted their plan to join the agreement to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is in China to witness the announcement.

Senior Obama adviser Brian Deese said the joint declaration should push other countries to formally join the agreement.

“The signal of the two large emitters taking this step together and taking it early, far earlier than people had anticipated a year ago, should give confidence to the global communities and to other countries that are working on their climate change plans, that they too can move quickly and will be part of a global effort,” Deese told reporters on Friday.

India is also poised to join the agreement this year, Deese said, adding that Obama was expected to meet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of a Group of 20 nations meeting in Hangzhou, China, this weekend.

Obama and Xi committed to cooperate on two other global environmental agreements this year – an amendment to the Montreal Protocol to phase down air-conditioning refrigerants and on a market-based measure to reduce carbon emissions from aviation.

“Today’s announcement is the strongest signal yet that what we agreed in Paris will soon be the law of the land,” said Mattlan Zackhras, minister-in-assistance to the president of the Marshall Islands.

“With the two biggest emitters ready to lead, the transition to a low-emissions, climate-resilient global economy is now irreversible.”

Saturday’s joint statement could spur further ratifications by the likes of Brazil and Canada.

“We expect a surge of ratifications around the UN Climate week later in September,” said Bill Hare, chief executive of Climate Analytics.

EU “getting ready”

The EU’s Climate Commissioner, Miguel Arias Cañete , welcomed the announcement as “good news”, saying there was more to come. “EU’s getting ready, decisions soon,” Cañete said on Twitter.

Before the G20 opened, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk issued a joint statement, calling for “swift ratification and implementation of the Paris Agreement,” urging countries that had not yet done so to ratify the pact.

“The EU’s ratification of the Paris Agreement would demonstrate European solidarity and unity in challenging times. Let’s seize the moment,” Cañete wrote further.

Europe has been slow to put the agreement into effect because it must be ratified separately by the EU and each individual member state. The procedure in some countries like the Netherlands would require changes to the constitution, which may take some time.

And while the EU as a bloc agreed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels, the 28 countries still have to agree legally-binding acts on how this objective should be shared between themselves.

The European Parliament’s calendar has led some, including French Environment Minister and President of the COP 21 Ségolène Royal, to hope for a conclusion to the deal at EU level by this autumn.

Environment ministers fear the Paris Agreement will come into force without the EU

Europe’s environment ministers have called for the Paris agreement, concluded last December at COP21, to be ratified as quickly as possible, both at EU and member state level.

Discussions on this point promise to be tense, especially since Britain’s decision to leave the EU, which will further complicate talks.

Christiana Figueres, the one of the architects of the historic deal struck last December, said a decision by Britain to leave the EU “would require recalibration” of the international pact.

“From the point of view of the Paris Agreement, the UK is part of the EU and has put in its effort as part of the EU so anything that would change that would require a recalibration,” she said in June, one day before the Brexit referendum.

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Entry into force before end 2016?

In Paris last December, nearly 200 countries agreed on a binding global compact to slash greenhouse gases and keep global temperature increases to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius.

While 180 countries have now signed the agreement, 55 nations – covering at least 55% of global emissions – need to formally ratify the treaty to put it into legal effect.

Before China and the United States, 23 nations had ratified – including North Korea – but they collectively accounted for just 1.08 percent of global emissions, according to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

China represents just over 20% of global emissions while the United States accounting for 17.9%, Russia 7.5% and India 4.1%.

The announcement is a major diplomatic achievement for the US president, who ends his term in January.

Li Shuo, a climate adviser with Greenpeace, said both China and the United States were determined to put the treaty into force as soon as possible in order to avoid the risk that any new Republican administration would reject it.

“It now looks like the Paris agreement will enter into force before the end of the year and that will really be light speed compared to almost all other international agreements,” he said.

Push to phase out fossil fuel subsidies

G20 countries – which represent 82% of the world’s GDP – are also facing pressure to declare a deadline to phase out the fossil fuel subsidies they provide, which critics say hurt investment in clean energy and slow efforts to reduce the use of fossil fuels.

In recent days, investors managing $13 trillion and insurers handling more than $1.2 trillion in assets have called for G20 countries to announce a deadline to end the subsidies.

“Climate change… represents the mother of all risks – to business and to society as a whole,” warned Mark Wilson, CEO of insurer Aviva, in a statement. “And that risk is magnified by the way in which fossil fuel subsidies distort the energy market.”

Leaders in the G20 agreed in 2009 to phase out fossil fuels, but are yet to set a firm date, although G7 leaders have said they would do so by 2025, as part of a broader agreement announced last year to decarbonise the global economy.

Some 30 countries around the world have taken steps to cut subsidies in the last three years, from India, which eliminated diesel subsidies in 2014, to Germany, which aims to remove coal subsidies by 2018, said Helen Mountford, programme director for the New Climate Economy initiative and a WRI economist.

China is also expected to push at the summit for broader action on “green finance”, to help ensure that more of the anticipated $90 trillion-worth of new infrastructure to be built by 2030 is low-carbon, Steer said.

“If we’re to move from today’s high-carbon, low-efficiency world economy to tomorrow’s high-efficiency, low-carbon world economy, quite a lot needs to shift,” he said.

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