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Your Biggest Questions About The Paris Agreement Climate Pact, Answered

What you need to know about the most important climate protection pact in history

On Friday, leaders and top officials from more than 160 countries will gather in the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations headquarters in New York to put their signatures on the most important document that decades of international climate talks have ever produced: the Paris Agreement.

But wait, you’re thinking—didn’t this historic bit of climate diplomacy happen back in December?

Well, sort of. On December 12, 2015, 195 nations agreed unanimously to adopt the 31-page text as drafted. To rapturous applause, French Foreign Minister and Paris Climate Conference President Laurent announced, “I see there is no objection, the Paris Agreement has been adopted.” And with that he lifted a green gavel and cheerfully pounded in the new global climate deal.

Six years earlier at a climate summit in Denmark, world leaders and top UN officials had been embarrassed by the big flop in Copenhagen, where after much hype and the promise of a fair, ambitious and binding deal, all they managed to deliver was a toothless and vague three-page accord that contained no commitments to actually reducing emissions that contribute to global temperature increases. All involved were dispirited. The value of the entire UN climate process was called into question.

So to many diplomats and climate advocates who have spent much of their lives working within the UN climate process, the Paris Agreement felt like a vindication of multilateral climate diplomacy. It felt like a breakthrough. And as Fabius struck his gavel, cheers broke out all around the old airplane hangar that had been retrofitted to host the conference. The typically staid delegates in the assembly hall went wild. A room full of non-profit activists erupted. Even in the media center—overstuffed with impartial reporters and cynical bloggers—there were yelps and shouts and even tears.

That Saturday night, as celebratory bottles of champagne were popped in cafes around the city and as negotiators and UN officials danced with climate activists at an afterparty, it sure felt like the deal was done. But that adoption in Paris was just the first of three steps to seeing the Agreement go from words on a page to something that actually commits countries to action. And that brings us to the current week in New York. While Friday’s event at the UN General Assembly Hall is largely ceremonial, the signatures themselves are fairly significant.

How does the Paris Agreement actually come into force?

“There are three stages for how the Agreement enters into actual force,” explained David Waskow, director of the International Climate Initiative at World Resources Institute (WRI). “The first is called ‘adoption,’ which is what was done in Paris.”

The next stage is for the parties to actually sign the Agreement, which is what 162 of them (as of Wednesday) have promised to do on Friday. While the signing is another precursor step to actually joining, according to Waskow, it’s not merely ceremony, “Once they sign they essentially agree that they won’t take any step that would undermine the purposes of the Agreement.” And because this is the UN, which tends to put process before expediency, parties agreed to wait nearly five months before they could actually sign the thing.

Then comes the third stage, when countries actually join the Agreement by ratifying, accepting or approving it through their own domestic political processes. For reasons of local politics, not all countries are going to join at the same time. Ratification or acceptance on the homefront isn’t as easy as showing up in Manhattan to put pen to paper. Some small island nations like the Maldives and Fiji have already ratified the Agreement before they’ve even been allowed to sign it.

So for the Agreement to officially “come into force,” which is a fancy way of saying that certain aspects of it will be legally binding, 55 parties representing 55-percent of global greenhouse gas emissions have to take this last step and ratify the deal. The 55 parties requirement will be satisfied pretty easily. Between the couple of dozen small island states like the Maldives and Fiji and others in the so-called “Climate Vulnerable Forum”—who badly want this deal to come into force as soon as possible—there are already enough countries ready to ratify the deal.

And the 55-percent requirement shouldn’t present too big a hurdle either. A quick look at the handy, interactive Paris Agreement Tracker built by World Resources Institute shows that the U.S. and China alone get us a good way to the 55-percent, and late last month President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced together that both nations would be signing on April 22, and both are planning to accept it formally as early as this year.

But won’t Congress muck this up?

A lot of Senate Republicans would love the opportunity to do just that, but it looks like they won’t get that chance. The Obama administration is seeking to avoid a repeat of the last big international climate deal, where the U.S. famously reneged on our promises and failed to ever ratify the Kyoto Protocol. And the State Department negotiators maintained through the talks that the Paris deal wouldn’t require the approval of Congress, because it’s not technically a treaty.

“The U.S. can employ different modes for becoming a party to an international agreement,” Waskow explained. “One of them is as an executive agreement. The U.S. has done this many times in the past, most recently for the Minimata Convention on Mercury a couple of years ago.”

The key criteria is, according to Waskow, “Whether an agreement is consistent with existing U.S. law. In the case of the Paris Agreement, it is. The targets the U.S. is taking on aren’t legally binding internationally, so they don’t require some kind of legal change on the part of the U.S. The most consequential legally binding element of the Paris Agreement is about transparency, and that’s something the U.S. already has existing law for in terms of reporting emissions.”

Every country will wrestle with this sort of issue, as each has its own process for consenting to join this type of agreement. Those small island states, for example, only required a few simple procedures to ratify the pact at a local level, but everywhere will be different. As Natasha Geiling explained on Think Progress, “Australia would only need to formally notify the Parliament and introduce the agreement, but other countries—like Mexico—require some sort of legislative approval before the agreement can be joined.”

So what exactly will they be signing?

There’s a whole lot of packed into the dense, aspirational 20-page preamble and the 29 exhaustively negotiated operative articles that make up the Paris Agreement. And in the twenty weeks since the final gavel fell in Paris, the text has been evaluated and dissected in countless articles, white papers, infographics and even dissertations. But some top level takeaways can be extracted out of the technical, diplomatic legalese. Countries agreed that all would act to limit warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celcius above pre-industrial levels, and to “take efforts” to keep it below 1.5 degrees.

To put a practical spin on these temperature targets, the Agreement calls for greenhouse gas emissions to peak “as soon as possible” and to “achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks.” Basically that means reaching carbon neutrality by emitting only as many greenhouse gases as the forests and oceans can naturally absord, and doing so in the second half of the century.

To achieve this, countries can bring whatever they want to the table in the form of (please pardon the UN-speak here) Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs. The United States, for instance, “intends to achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent below its 2005 level in 2025 and to make best efforts to reduce its emissions by 28%.”

The problem is, the numbers don’t add up. All of those individual contributions can’t possibly achieve the stated long term goals. And so the deal calls for a “ratcheting up” of ambition (through more aggressive INDCs) every five years, starting in 2018. Also, because not all countries can afford to make the investments in switching to carbon-free renewables—or to adapt to the impacts climate change that are already baked in—rich countries are compelled to help out by funding various “climate finance” programs.

While there were (and remain) plenty who criticize the deal as unfair and not nearly ambitious enough, the general consensus was that Paris produced an agreement that was better than anything that our global politics should have been able to deliver. As George Monbiot wrote for The Guardian, “By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.”

This week, a prominent coalition of scientists are expected to release a deeper dive into the numbers and the latest climate projections, which will likely reveal that the biggest greenhouse gas polluters have to cut emissions by a lot more than what they’ve pledged so far if the world stands any chance of avoiding truly catastrophic, society-destabilizing impacts of climate change.

Back in December, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon offered that, “The Paris Agreement is a floor not a ceiling. It ensures that in 2018 we come back and do what is necessary by the climate science.” Until the agreement is finally signed and brought into force, we’re still living in a world without even a minimal commitment for global greenhouse gas reductions.

As the scientists tell us, the “floor” set by this Paris Agreement is still precarious and scary. But continuing to live over the void with no floor of climate action at all is downright frightening.

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