The Paris Agreement – could it be in force in 2016?

April 28, 2016

Posted by Frances Lawson

Fears that the momentum from COP21 in Paris would fizzle in the following months appear to have been dashed at the official Paris Agreement signing session which took place in New York last Friday 22nd April. Not only did representatives from 175 Parties attend to sign the Agreement, but fifteen of them – primarily small island states particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts – deposited their instruments of ratification at the same time.

This is but the first step in the Paris Agreement taking legal effect; in order for it to enter into force, Article 21 of the Agreement provides that 55 countries accounting for at least 55% of global CO2 emissions must ratify the text. Thirty days thereafter, the Agreement takes effect as a binding component of international environmental law. Although the fifteen countries who have already taken the ratification step account for a tiny fraction of global emissions, the signs are that the major emitters intend to follow suit shortly; Canada, the US, the EU, China, Australia, Brazil and Russia all indicated a likely joining of the Agreement in the months ahead. Should these Parties keep to their word, there is a real prospect of the Paris Agreement entering into force before the year is out.

Further cause for optimism comes from those who were fortunate to be present in New York. Describing scenes of celebration, one attendee felt the mood to be extremely buoyant and undimmed by the four months since the negotiations drew to a close. Although much remains to be tested and resolved with the implementation of the adopted text, in a bottom-up Agreement such as this, ongoing support and enthusiasm from the Parties will be perhaps the key driver of the enhanced and accelerated progress that fulfilling the “well below 2 degrees Celsius” temperature goal requires.

One other point of note is that for the first time, the State of Palestine was given the opportunity to sign an international agreement as a Party, and indeed was one of the fifteen to move to immediate ratification. Given virulent US opposition to official recognition of a Palestinian state, some commentators wonder whether this brave move by the UN could result in a reduction of US financial support for the UNFCCC, either now, or after a change of administration in November. With reports that the UNFCCC Secretariat had to seek additional US funds in order to hold the final negotiating session in October, any reduction in support could, potentially, hamper the Agreement’s implementation going forwards.

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