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We’ll Always Have the Paris Agreement: What’s Next For The UN Climate Talks?

After years of negotiations the hard work is finally about to begin

Image courtesy of The Atlantic

Now that the Paris Agreement has been adopted and signed, what has to happen next for it to serve its function in, you know, saving the world? Here’s a quick recap of what happened last Friday at the massive United Nations event, and a look at what will happen now that the global community has shaken hands and agreed it’s time to take global warming seriously.

First the agreement has to clear the final hurdle in the three-step process—adoption, signing, ratification—to officially go into force, At that point it will officially be in the United Nations’ books and certain parts of it will be legally binding. To make that happen, parties have to clear the 55-55 test. That is, at least 55 countries that together account for at least 55-percent of global greenhouse gas emissions have to go through the legal, executive and legislative hoops back home so that they may formally accept or ratify the agreement.

As soon as these thresholds are met, the Paris Agreement kicks in for real. On Friday, 15 countries jumpstarted this final process by submitting their formal “instruments of ratification” to the U.N. A bunch of others—including some big polluters like the U.S., China, Canada and Australia—have said that they’ll join as early as this year. According to the World Resources Institute’s handy Paris Agreement Tracker, the 25 countries that either joined Friday or say they will early gets us within 10-percent of the emissions threshold.

Just 10-percent to go. Credit: World Resources Institute

What’s the rush?

The science, of course! The hard data tells us that this global deal—despite its historic significance—borders on being too little, too late. "Even if the Paris pledges are implemented in full, they are not enough to get us even close to a 2-degree pathway," said John Sterman of MIT Sloan, which is the organization that produces the Climate Scoreboard in conjunction with Climate Interactive. "I don't think people understand how urgent it is."

But here in the United States, there are political reasons for expediency, too. According to the language of the Paris Agreement, once the pact is enforced countries would have to wait four years to leave it, and because the U.S. plans on joining the agreement through executive action—and not ratification by the Senate—if it isn’t locked down by next January, an incoming president would have the authority to singlehandedly back out of the deal. Both Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have publicly crushed the agreement. Which is why President Obama is pushing for enough countries formally join before inauguration day, ensuring that the U.S. would be locked in until at least 2020.

That said, even if the 55-55 thresholds aren’t met by January and a Republican is elected, the deal may yet survive. “There are significant political consequences if you withdraw from an agreement,” said David Waskow of World Resources Institute. “There would be quite a lot of reaction internationally if the U.S. were to reverse course.” Meaning that the diplomatic backlash would likely hamper our other foreign affair priorities.

Waskow added that “there would be political consequences at home” as well. “We’re seeing that there’s a clear majority of the country that wants to take action on climate change, and also wants to do it in a way that’s cooperative internationally, as long as other countries are stepping up and taking action as well.” Fortunately, this is essentially what the Paris Agreement ensures.

Now that there’s a deal, will the UN climate talks go on?

Though they often fly under the radar, the UN climate talks have actually been ongoing for over two decades. At the Rio Earth Summit back in 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was created as an international treaty, and it’s now the umbrella under which all of the subsequent negotiations happen. Every year since 1995, there has been a “conference of the parties” (or COP) where the bulk of the dealmaking is done. With very few exceptions—Kyoto in 1997, Copenhagen in 2009 and COP21 in Paris last year—these rarely generate many headlines outside of the environmental and foreign affairs press, which is why you most likely don’t know they exist.

But the Paris Agreement may change that. The talks were unique not only for what they accomplished (something!), but also for how much attention people paid to them (lots!). The level of engagement—at the talks themselves, throughout Paris, on social media and even in the mainstream press—was without precedent. Will the world stay tuned now that the focus of the talks turns from compromising on commitments to collaborating on action? We will learn a lot in Marrakech in November, when the next COP convenes.

The UN’s current to-do list reads like an acronym soup of 52 specific tasks that should be completed in the next few years of climate talks to “take the Paris Agreement forward.” Waskow simplified a couple: “How the transparency and accountability rules and processes will work for measuring and verifying greenhouse gas pollution data? What support will look like in terms of climate finance and capacity building for developing nations?” And, significantly, how to improve national emissions reductions commitments. As of now, nations will be reviewing and updating their pledges every five years, but the mechanisms for how exactly that is going to work—Is there a requirement to improve the ambition? Can these commitments be negotiated?—is all up in the air.

Now that parties have agreed on what has to happen, they’re going to have to figure out—together and back home—how to actually make it happen. “COP21 was the COP of commitment,” said Princess Lalla Hasna of Morocco on Friday. “COP22 will be the COP of action.” After years spent arriving at a nearly impossible agreement that many thought the world would never see, now the hard work begins.

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