After the ink has dried on the Paris Agreement

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US President Barack Obama was among the heads of state to address the COP21 on its opening day. [COP PARIS]

Over 100 governments are expected to sign the Paris Agreement on climate change at a ceremony in New York on Friday (22 April), highlighting international support in the fight against global warming. But ratifying the deal will require more time, write Klaus Dingwerth and Jörn Richert.

Klaus Dingwerth is Assistant Professor for Political Science at the University of St. Gallen. Switzerland. Jörn Richert is Assistant Professor for Energy Governance at the University of St. Gallen. Switzerland.

This Friday (22 April), over 100 governments will sign the Paris Agreement. The act itself is primarily symbolic. It signals continued support for an international agreement that governments have reached after nearly twenty years of negotiations.

That so many governments attend the ceremony is unusual. But given the broad support they have signaled for the agreement four months ago, it is not surprising either. In legal terms, however, it is the ratification and not the signature which binds a state to the letter of the Paris Agreement. In fact, Article 21 of the deal holds that it will only become binding on the “thirtieth day after the date on which at least 55 Parties to the [UN Framework Convention on Climate Change] accounting in total for at least an estimated 55% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions have deposited their instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession”.

To reach that final step in the legal process may require some time. The Kyoto Protocol, for example, had been negotiated in 1997, but did not enter into force until 2005. Nonetheless signing a treaty is more than merely symbolism. It implies, based on the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, that states must “refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose” of that treaty.

Luckily, the Paris Agreement is clear as well as ambitious when it comes to its “object and purpose”. States signing this Friday must therefore make sure that their actions defeat neither the goal of holding temperature increase to “well below 2°C” – and possibly even 1.5°C – nor efforts to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the second half of this century. As a result, the well over 100 signatories also send a signal that they intend to leave business as usual behind.

Critics lament a lack of strong enforcement mechanisms in the Paris Agreement. Yet this critique misses the point because the agreement will be either self-enforcing or self-defeating. The reason is simple: if major states comply with their commitments, other states face strong incentives to follow suit; if major states choose not to comply, the Paris Agreement will simply break down. As a result, what matters is monitoring and transparency, not enforcement, and the deal provides for both.

Beyond the details of individual articles, however, the most important aspect of the Paris Agreement is that the conclusion of an ambitious international treaty will finally allow governments to change gears and shift their focus from negotiation to action. The logic of the Paris Agreement implies that it is the major players – the US and the EU, Australia, Canada, Japan and Russia, but also emerging economies like China, Brazil and India – who will need to take the lead. Because cooperation is unlikely to be maintained if any of these states drops out, it is on their parts to make the deal work.

Immediate action is particularly important in five areas.

  • First, the major actors need to implement early, credible and effective measures that will enable them to meet the ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ (INDCs) communicated before the Paris Agreement.
  • Second, the major states need to think hard about setting themselves more ambitious goals for the following five-year period.
  • Third, to reach the goal of making, by 2020, 100 billion USD per year available to support mitigation and adaptation measures in developing countries, major industrialised states must not wait to demonstrate that their commitment is sincere.
  • Fourth, states should engage in an active foreign climate and sustainable energy policy that allows all states to learn from the experiences of each other.
  • Finally, while the Paris Agreement sets the scene for immediate action, a common long-term vision that would show societies how they might be able to move to a carbon-neutral world still needs to be worked out.

Yet the task of developing this vision is best reserved not for governments, but for societies as a whole. It is in this sense that the symbolic act we will be able to witness this Friday is addressed – and should hence matter – to all of us.

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