Some 175 countries accounting for roughly 90pc of global greenhouse gas emissions signed the Paris agreement on climate change at UN headquarters in New York on 22 April. It is the largest number of states to ever sign a multilateral deal on its opening day, the previous record having been 119 signing the UN Law of the Sea Treaty.
The Paris deal’s current signatories include China and India, the first time that these high-emitting emerging economies have committed to international climate pledges. This bridging of the rigid rich-poor country division enshrined in previous climate treaties is one of the Paris deal’s key wins.
Around 15 nations — unsurprisingly mostly vulnerable, small island states that account for less than 1pc of global emissions — also formally ratified the agreement in addition to signing it.
But far more significant is the fact that the US and China, which account for nearly 40pc of global GHG emissions, have undertaken to ratify the agreement this year. This means that the treaty will soon reach the critical mass — of at least 55 countries representing 55pc of global emissions — needed to bring it into force. So, it may become operational as early as next year and, in all likelihood, at the latest by 2018 — two years earlier than originally intended.
This is surprisingly good progress, given that only six countries — Switzerland, Argentina, Antigua and Barbuda, Maldives, St Lucia and Samoa — signed the Kyoto Protocol on its opening day in 1998 and the treaty was only ratified in 2005, seven years after first being adopted.
But then the Paris deal imposes far less stringent obligations than the Kyoto Protocol, given that countries’ pledges are entirely voluntary and non-binding — and only the reporting of emissions is compulsory. By contrast, the Kyoto Protocol set binding targets for industrialised countries to cut emissions an average of 5pc against 1990 levels by 2012.
The unprecedented show of support for global climate action in New York last Friday is important symbolically. It gives reason to hope that we have at last entered a brave new world where there is real political will to curb climate change.
But it is not the first time that a climate deal has been hailed as a landmark achievement — the Kyoto Protocol was greeted with similar enthusiasm. And Kyoto, like the Paris agreement, called for the phasing out of fiscal incentives, tax exemptions and subsidies for all GHG-emitting sectors that run counter to the objective of climate mitigation. But 18 years after the Kyoto Protocol was agreed, fossil fuel subsidies still amount to around $500bn/yr.
The truth is that signing is the easy part as it is a mere signal of intent — and what really matters is implementation. Actions speak louder than words and, looking beyond the Hollywood-style fanfare, some governments’ behaviour since the Paris deal’s adoption is worrying.
The EU as a whole — and the UK in particular — has refused to revisit its GHG reduction targets, despite admitting that these are inadequate to meet the “well below” 2°C goal set by the Paris deal.
On 22 April, the same day as the Paris deal’s signing, the International Maritime Organisation again failed to agree a mandate to develop a mitigation target for the global shipping sector.
China, along with other BASIC countries, opposed a proposal by Germany, Belgium and France, to define a “fair” contribution for the sector in the context of the Paris deal. Disappointingly, the US lobbied against the proposal at the start, although it did not ultimately vote against it. Eventually, the fraught behind-the-scenes discussions ended in a stalemate.
Instead, the UN body agreed a draft proposal for mandatory requirements for ships to report their fuel consumption, which could enter into force in 2018. Purportedly, this data collection system will allow the IMO to decide “if further measures are needed to address the sector’s GHG emissions.” But surely, given that the maritime sector is expected to represent 17pc of global CO2 emissions by 2050, we already have all the data we need to know that it is critical that shipping makes a fair contribution if we are to meet the Paris deal’s goals.
Unfortunately, this feet-dragging is the rule rather than the exception for high-emitting industries.
The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) is currently negotiating a global market-based measure to curb global aviation emissions which it aims to adopt by its self-imposed deadline of October this year.
As long ago as 2001, ICAO agreed that countries were free to develop their own emissions trading schemes to regulate airline emissions. But in 2008, the UN body curtailed this freedom by urging states to exempt emissions of airlines based in other states unless their inclusion was bilaterally agreed.
Based on the current proposal, ICAO’s market-based measure will largely be an offset-based scheme aimed at achieving net zero GHG emissions growth from 2020 onwards. But unless strict criteria are agreed to ensure these offsets’ environmental integrity — and credits such as those generated by hydro and industrial gas projects banned by the EU are also disallowed by ICAO — the scheme will amount to little more than creative carbon accounting.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. We are already at least half-way there, given that global warming has reached 1°C — half of the critical 2°C limit agreed under the Paris deal — and the process is accelerating at an alarming rate.
So far, 2016 has already overshadowed even 2015 in terms of record high temperatures, extreme weather, the rapid melting of Arctic ice, and widespread bleaching of ocean coral reefs, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) warned.
The window of opportunity is closing rapidly. Governments need to get real on climate change if the Paris agreement is to be the watershed moment that it is hailed.