UN Secretary General Ban ki Moon (centre) celebrates the adoption of the Paris climate agreement with (from left) France's Ambassador for Climate Negotiations Laurence Tubiana, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and French President Francois Hollande [Image by Arnaud Bouissou]

UN Secretary General Ban ki Moon (centre) celebrates the adoption of the Paris climate agreement with (from left) France’s Ambassador for Climate Negotiations Laurence Tubiana, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and French President Francois Hollande [Image by Arnaud Bouissou]

At least 155 countries are expected to sign the Paris Climate Agreement, a major milestone that could see countries enacting the deal by next year, well before the official start date of 2020.

In order for the agreement to enter into legal force, at least 55 countries, representing at least 55% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, need to ratify, accept or approve it following the April 22 signing ceremony at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Some signatories, such as the European Union, will take at least 18 months to put last December’s climate deal into action, as they have yet to decide how EU’s 2030 climate target will be divided up among member states, a process that might take until 2018.

But early action by large emitters including China and the US, which between them account for around 40% of the world’s output of GHGs, could accelerate a process that until Paris was often snarled up in procedure and acrimony.

Despite suggestions that many developing countries should delay signing or ratification to gain leverage with rich countries such as finance, most countries are likely to put pen to paper this week and ratify sooner rather than later.

The World Resources Institute has a created handy tool that tracks countries actions on the Paris Agreement

“I think we will have [the Paris Agreement] in effect by 2018,” UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres told an event in London last week, adding that the need for urgency was paramount and that deep emissions cuts were at least a decade overdue.

The world is now at “two minutes to midnight,” Figueres said, adding that if the world is to get to “net zero” emissions in the second half of the century, “we would have to peak by 2020.”

A business-as-usual scenario “would have us peaking somewhere between 2025 and 2035,” underlining the need for decisive action much sooner, she added.

Clear and present danger

GHG concentration in the atmosphere has already passed the 400 parts per million (ppm) mark, close to a dangerous tipping point, say scientists.

Meanwhile, more frequent and more severe droughts, storms and floods — linked also to the cyclical El Niño weather phenomenon — have given policymakers a foretaste of what can become commonplace in a warming world.

Against this backdrop, a meeting this week of the UN’s climate science panel, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), decided that scientists will study the feasibility of cutting emissions so that a rise in average global temperatures can be restricted to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Governments have so far agreed to keep this rise within two degrees, with 1.5 described as an “aspirational goal”.

Small island states and most vulnerable countries say keeping average temperature rise within 1.5 degrees is essential for their survival.

Largely at their insistence, the 1.5-degree threshold was included in the Paris Agreement, but most developed countries, most notably European Union member states, have based their proposed emissions cuts on a two-degree figure as a more feasible outcome.

This higher limit, which is informed mainly by IPCC recommendations published in 2008, would condemn many of the most vulnerable countries to disaster. Emissions cuts proposed by countries in Paris would not even achieve that, but would put the world on a path to three degrees of warming.

The IPCC also decided to work on two more special reports — one on climate change and oceans and the cryosphere; the other on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems.

In its next assessment — scheduled for publication between 2020 and 20222 — the IPCC also decided to pay special attention to the impacts of climate change on cities.

According to a new study, a two-degree rise would lead to much higher sea levels that could swamp cities and coastal areas that are home to billions of people. It would make some parts of the world, particularly the tropics, increasingly uninhabitable because of intense heatwaves, while countries around the Mediterranean Sea would face more frequent droughts.

More emission cuts possible

Climate policy analysts say that if the Paris Agreement is enacted early, then a review mechanism or “global stocktake” in 2018 countries is likely to be under increasing pressure to agree deeper, faster carbon emission cuts.

Early ratification would also have other big benefits for the UN climate process, such as ‘locking in’ the US into the Paris Agreement ahead of a change in the White House early next year, through which a Republican, if elected, could block or try to reverse climate action.

Early ratification would also send out a stronger signal to business and industry that policymakers will work towards deeper emissions cuts over time, underlining the financial risks to investments in fossil fuels and give stronger incentives to low carbon technology such as renewables.

“Those countries who are major emitters are also some of those with most to gain from prompt action to curb the threat of climate change because of the massive impacts it could have, not just on agricultural systems, transport or energy infrastructure but on bottom lines,” said Paul Simpson, head of the Carbon Disclosure Project, one of the business groups that signed a letter last week urging early ratification by governments.

Many of the world’s biggest companies, central banks, and a G20-appointed task force, which will report by the end of this year, are investigating the threats to the global financial system if the world doesn’t switch to low carbon investments quickly enough.

A meeting of EU finance ministers in the Netherlands this week will propose ‘stress tests’ for banks that would compel investors to calculate their exposure to extreme weather events and carbon-heavy assets.

Last weekend, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called upon the global insurance industry, which has investment portfolios valued around USD 25 trillion, to manage and reduce climate risks more effectively.

The signing ceremony will also be part of a wider effort by the UN to encourage the implementation of its sustainable development goals and the scaling up of climate finance promised by developed countries.

Indian summer

As India reels from a severe drought and heatwave records are broken regularly, Prakash Javadekar, Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, urged the developed world to declare its enhanced climate action plan for the 2016-2020 period. The Paris Agreement is scheduled to come into effect in 2020.

Speaking to journalists on the eve of his departure to New York to sign the agreement, Javadekar pointed out that rich nations still had no action plan on how to mobilise the USD 100 billion per year that they have promised from 2020.

Apart from its ambitious target to generate 175 MW of power every year from renewable sources after 2022, India has levied an environment cess of INR 400 (USD 6) per tonne on coal. The minister said if the developed world followed suit, it could raise the USD 100 billion. He also demanded that the developed world provide technological support to developing countries in the fight against climate change.

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