April 22, 2016

Putting Promises from Paris onto Paper

COP21_participants_-_30_Nov_2015_(23430273715)About 160 countries will sign the Paris Agreement today. It was drafted at COP21 in Paris in December last year. April 22nd – which happens to be Earth Day – marks the beginning of the period when countries can officially sign up to its terms. U.N. officials say the signing ceremony will set a record for international diplomacy: Never before have so many countries put their name to an agreement on the first day of the signing period.

Among the countries who intend to sign the pact are the US and China, who together account for nearly 40% of global emissions.

The former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark, heads up the U.N. Development Program. She said, “There’s incredible momentum. We’re moving as quickly as possible to action.”

Under the agreement, countries set targets for reducing their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The targets are not legally binding but countries must update them every five years. It’s seen as a breakthrough for U.N. climate negotiations which have been stagnating since the failed climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009.

It’s great that so many countries are so eager to sign the agreement. But it may not go far enough. John Sterman, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) says,

“Even if the Paris pledges are implemented in full, they are not enough to get us even close to a 2-degree pathway. I don’t think people understand how urgent it is. In Paris they reached what was possible diplomatically and maybe went a little bit beyond it. I think we should celebrate it. But the physics of the climate are relentless.”

The latest analysis of the pledges made under the Paris Agreement by Sterman and his colleagues at MIT put the world on track for 3.5 degrees of warming. Climate Action Tracker, a European group, project a warming of 2.7 degrees. Either way, warming of this magnitude could be catastrophic for the earth, forcing mass migration, wiping out crops, flooding low lying islands, and melting Arctic sea ice.

It’s not all bad news. The International Energy Agency say that global energy emissions were flat last year compared to the previous year, even though the global economy grew.

Those who don’t sign the agreement today have a year to do so. And of course after signing, they need to put into place timelines and strategies to reach their targets. It’s a good first step, but there’s a long way to go.


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