Paris Agreement: World takes giant step towards tackling climate change

The world’s most important climate change agreement will come into force on November 4. This is after enough countries ratified the Paris Agreement for it to become binding to everyone else.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN’s outgoing secretary-general, announced this in a press statement this week. The date is much sooner than most people had expected, with international agreements normally taking years for countries to approve internally.

The last big climate agreement came at the end of the 90s, with the Kyoto Protocol. This set targets for countries to lower their carbon emissions. But it didn’t include the majority of countries, and lost its ambition when the United States pulled out.

The Paris Agreement is different. Agreed on at COP21 in the French capital last year, this created a framework for countries to decide how they would individually tackle climate change. It doesn’t bind countries to specific targets, but rather gets everyone on the same page and working towards a single goal – limiting average global temperature increases to 2°C this century.

To get there, countries have submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. These say how each country will lower carbon emissions, and adapt to the changing climate.

It means everyone has a plan, but the UN says these still aren’t ambitious enough. Collated, the 200-odd country plans will still see the world getting 3°C this century. Warming in Africa’s interior will be double that. That’s catastrophic.

The reason the system had to be watered down, and not legally binding, is down to the United States. With its Senate controlled by climate-denying Republicans, anything that required a vote in that chamber would have been shot down.

Instead, the agreement comes into force when 55% of countries – representing 55% of global carbon emissions – ratify it. The workaround has allowed the US to ratify the agreement, with its president saying: “If we follow through on the commitments that the Paris agreement embodies, history may well judge it as a turning point for our planet.”

There has been a rush to get the agreement ratified before the possibility of Donald Trump assuming the role as US president. He has promised to opt out of any agreement, saying that climate change is a conspiracy theory concocted by China. By going into force before that possibility, the US is locked in for the first three years at least.

South Africa has not yet ratified, with the environment department saying it needs to go through a public consultation process before that step.

Meanwhile 2016 speeds along, shattering global heat records, as it heads towards being the hottest year ever recorded. Every month of this year has set a temperature record, with most going over 1°C hotter than they would normally be. That is half the 2°C target the Paris Agreement set as an upper limit for warming. 

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.
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