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The Paris Climate Agreement Fixed Climate Change, Right? Not So Fast...

The Paris Climate Agreement was just the beginning

On Friday, the Paris Agreement officially enters into force, which is the United Nations’ way of saying that the landmark international climate deal is officially in the books. But now, as envoys from around the world head to Morocco for the next round of annual U.N. climate talks, the hard work begins.

If you’re confused, you’re not alone. The realm of international climate negotiations is famously confounding—an alphabet soup of obscure acronyms and an inscrutable collection of arcane procedures and rules. It’s a world where people throw around terms like COP2, UNFCCC, and CMA without batting an eye. (Curious? That’s the twenty-first Conference of the Parties, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement—Seriously.) And we wonder why more conscientious citizens don’t tune in.


So let’s take a step back here and take stock of where we’re are: what happened last year in Paris; what’s happened since; and what we can expect—or at least hope for—in Marrakech over the next couple of weeks.

Didn’t we celebrate the Paris Agreement already? Actually … twice?

Well, yes. We cheered (some of us wildly) last December when French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, a day into overtime of the COP21 climate talks, ceremoniously proclaimed, “I see there is no objection, the Paris Agreement has been adopted,” lifting a green gavel and pounding the 31-page text into a final draft. Delegates and observers, including Al Gore, were fired up.

Then in April, we celebrated again, as leaders from 175 nations all signed the Agreement on Earth Day, none more memorably than Secretary of State John Kerry, who brought his granddaughter up to the podium with him.

GIF by Lorey Campese

So why didn’t they all just sign it when they were all together already in Paris?

Because it’s the U.N. and nothing happens fast. Everything has to follow a strict set of puzzling rules and timelines.

And that’s why it’s been more than six months since Kerry and his foreign counterparts signed the deal and it’s only today becoming official?

Actually, nobody—not even the most optimistic—expected it to go into force so quickly. The signatures were just the second of a three-step process: adoption, signing, ratification. And that final step required yet another seemingly arbitrary requirement that doesn’t much matter now that it’s been achieved. (If you do happen to be interested in the nitty-gritty, I wrote about the so-called “55-55” threshold for ratification back in April.)

The fact that the Paris Agreement cleared these three hurdles so quickly, though, is important. President Obama wanted to make sure that the deal was in the books before he left office, so that U.S. participation was not left up to the whim of his successor.

So Trump couldn’t screw this up?

Even though he’s said that he would rip up the Agreement, now that it’s officially gone into force, he’d have to wait until at least 2020 to do so. And even then, the political pressures from foreign allies not to do so would be intense. “There are significant political consequences if you withdraw from an agreement,” David Waskow of World Resources Institute told me back in April. “There would be quite a lot of reaction internationally if the U.S. were to reverse course,” and we’d find ourselves lonely on a lot of other important foreign policy priorities like trade and global security.

What about Congress? They can screw anything up.

Here’s where the Obama administration played a clever hand. U.S. negotiators took great pains to make sure that the language in the final deal didn’t give birth to a true treaty (which would require a two-thirds vote from the Senate). As the Agreement is worded, President Obama has the authority to officially accept the deal as an executive agreement. And he did.

So we’re good! The Paris Agreement is official. We’ve saved the world!

Not so fast. World leaders did agree to limit the warming of the planet to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), at temperature at which, the climate scientists tell us, the world will no longer resemble anything similar to the one that has engendered all of human civilization. A world that is 2 degrees Celsius warmer than preindustrial levels is, to be blunt, a world of widespread food and water scarcity, of extreme weather and submerged coastlines, of decreased stability and increased violent conflict. A world of suffering.

Yet, even knowing that, if you take all of the greenhouse gas reduction pledges that nations made last year in Paris and tally them up, we’re shooting well past 2 degrees Celsius. The folks at Climate Interactive actually do the math, and right now all the emissions promises will yield about 3.5 degrees Celsius (6.3 degrees Fahrenheit) warming by the end of the century.

And those are just promises? What about actually getting stuff done?

That’s why I said “now the hard work begins.” As delegates from the 195 parties to the U.N. climate talks meet in Marrakech next week, they’ll be working to figure out how the procedures and protocols for both increasing the ambition of the emissions reductions pledges (to actually meet that 2 degree Celsius goal) and also how to meet those pledges.

“COP21 was the COP of commitment,” said Princess Lalla Hasna of Morocco in April. “COP22 will be the COP of action.”

For over a decade—basically since the United States dropped out of the Kyoto Protocol under President George W. Bush—the U.N. climate negotiations have been focused on, and logistically structured around, delivering a global deal that set ambitious emissions reduction targets for all major polluters. As Elliot Diringer of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions said on a call last week, “For many years the focus of the UNFCCC has been on negotiation, but now with the Paris Agreement in place, the focus really is turning to implementation.” In other words, making sure that the Paris Agreement isn’t just words on paper.

Delegates meeting Marrakech have to figure out what systems to put in place to encourage international cooperation for transitioning to a carbon-neutral global economy and how to do so fast. As it is the U.N., this will mean a whole lot more complicated mechanisms and working groups and programs with confounding acronyms (INDCs, NAMAs). “Building out the Paris architecture,” is how Diringer described it. So COP22 in Marrakech promises to be an unprecedented summit with a clean slate and a whole lot of framework to lay out. Hopefully it will prove to be the “COP of action,” but first it’s going to have to be a “COP of design.”

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