Walking the talk

  • Paris agreement could become operational earlier than expected; but will it be meaningfully implemented?
- Navin Singh Khadka

Apr 29, 2016-

It was more than just a signing ceremony at the United Nations General Assembly hall in New York last week. Not only 175 countries signed onto the Paris climate agreement, 34 of them have either already ratified it or have committed to do so within this year. The deal requires 55 countries accounting for 55 percent of the global carbon emissions to become operational.

Ratification by 34 countries represents nearly 50 percent of what the world emits. This means it will need a few more countries to reach the 55 percent mark. And by that speed, the agreement will come into force much earlier than the 2020 deadline.

When the Paris climate agreement was reached in the French capital last December, the deal was to implement it five years later. That was good news for some countries that were not willing to cut down their carbon emissions immediately on economic grounds. Others were concerned that the delay in implementation would result into dumping more carbon into the atmosphere and accelerating climatic changes. 

Taking the lead

Amid such uncertainty, the sooner-than-expected ratification of the agreement has come as welcome news for many. “The progress that [was] made in only hours and days after the agreement was formally opened for signing now puts us within striking distance of entering into force years earlier than anyone would have anticipated,” the Guardian newspaper quoted Brian Deese, a White House adviser. The “excitement” in President Barrack Obama’s administration is understandable given what he has tried to do to cut down the US’s carbon emissions and, by extension, to secure the Paris deal. But we have to see what the policy of Obama’s successor would be or whether the deal will be ratified by the US Congress that remains dominated by Republicans. 

Apart from the US’s proactive role, for now at least, China too played a key role to set the ball rolling. The biggest emitter of the world told the UN General Assembly—where the Paris agreement was signed by 175 countries last week—that it would ratify the deal before the G20 meeting in September.   

Not all countries, however, will see ratification so quickly and in a straightforward way as it will have to be debated in their Parliament. In the EU, for instance, all its 

28 member countries will have to get it ratified individually, which cannot happen overnight.

Given that 2020 was the initially agreed deadline, some countries taking their time for ratification may not become a huge issue. But the key will be whether the agreement will actually come into force once it has been ratified by 55 countries. In other words: Will the world then begin to see a reduction in carbon emissions? 

Scientists say drastic cuts in greenhouse gases, blamed for trapping heat on Earth and causing climate change, are a must for limiting global temperature rise to well below two degree Celsius—the main goal of the Paris deal. The climate plans submitted by countries to the UN just before the Paris climate summit last December showed that the goal was no way within reach.

The Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, as the climate plans are known in the UN jargon, made it clear that the world was heading towards becoming nearly four degrees warmer compared to the pre-industrial period. That is double the figure scientists have recommended if we are to avoid dangerous climatic changes. This means that even if the Paris climate agreement becomes operational, the carbon cut commitments made by the countries will not be enough to achieve its goal. And that means countries, mainly the major emitters, will have to raise their ambitions. The question then will be: Who will take the lead?

Disagreements already

In the meantime, the carbon cut commitments countries have made are meant to be reviewed. Basically, that will be about finding if they have been doing what they promised. The mechanism for such reviews is yet to be finalised, though. There were already disputes in Paris whether such reviews should be allowed to name and shame countries that do not walk the talk. 

If, for instance, a major emitter has been found to be not doing enough, do you think the country in question will agree to that finding and take action? And it will not be just about individual countries. Climate politics also involves alliances. Who will be siding with whom to support or oppose issues as they arise while implementing the Paris climate agreement?

Take the case of emissions from shipping. The EU and some island states had been calling for the industry to do its fair share in the global effort to cut down carbon emissions. But in the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) in London last week, the US reportedly sided with some emerging economies to oppose the idea.

“There should be no discussion of an emissions goal until data from individual ships has been gathered and analysed, argued Jeffrey Lantz. China’s delegation agreed it would be ‘premature’,” Climate Home reported. It quoted John Maggs of Seas At Risk as saying: “The IMO has fallen flat on its face in the first test of its determination to tackle greenhouse gas emissions after Paris, unable even to agree to develop a work plan for reducing ship emissions.”According to the report, Bill Hemmings, shipping director at Transport & Environment, said: “Key developing countries seem to be in denial.”

Rerun of Kyoto?

Remember how the US, China and India opposed the EU’s decision to tax international airlines for emissions two years ago? Such episodes could become more frequent once the Paris deal comes into force. It is easy to sign on to a document. But if it is something to be implemented by nearly 200 countries with diverse and sometimes conflicting interests, you can guess what it can be like.

The Kyoto protocol, that was supposed to control carbon emissions since 2005, has shown that already. If the Paris agreement becomes a rerun of Kyoto, the world will have to live with runaway climate change. The question is: Will poor and vulnerable countries like Nepal be able to? 

 

Khadka is a BBC journalist 

based in London

Published: 29-04-2016 09:17

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