7 reasons the Paris Agreement signing actually matters

Secretary_Kerry_Sits_With_UN_Secretary-General_Ban_Before_a_Bilateral_Meeting_at_COP21_in_Paris_(23567825382)

United States and more than 160 other countries set to formally sign the Paris Agreement on Earth Day 2016. Photo: Secretary Kerry Sits With UN Secretary-General Ban Before a Bilateral Meeting at COP21 in Paris.
Image Source: U.S. Department of State

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has invited countries to sign the Paris Agreement at the UN headquarters in New York on April 22, the first day the Agreement is open for signature. Here are seven reasons why the Earth Day ceremony is important.

1) The April 22 signing ceremony for the Paris Agreement is expected to shatter the record for the most countries to formally sign an international agreement in a single day.

Representatives from more than 160 countries (and counting – see the latest at the UN site), including sixty heads of state, will be in New York to signal their commitment to the Agreement struck in Paris last December. This would surpass the previous record of 119 signatures, set by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982.

The Paris Agreement aims to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C. This record-breaking signing ceremony demonstrates the political momentum behind the Agreement’s global plan to tackle climate change.

2) Signing is the next step for countries to join the agreement, but is not the end of the story.

Signing the Agreement in New York sends a strong and early signal of a country’s intention to launch its domestic processes necessary to join the Agreement. Once those processes are concluded, Governments will formally deposit with the United Nations Secretary-General, who is the depositary of the Paris Agreement, their “instrument of ratification, approval, acceptance or accession,” by which they formally join – and consent to be bound by – the Agreement.

Some nations will sign and join the Agreement on the same day, since they have already completed the necessary domestic procedures back home. States that don’t sign on April 22 still retain the ability to join the Agreement later.

3) The content and structure of the Paris Agreement means the U.S. can join quickly.

Like the vast majority of international agreements that the U.S. joins, the Paris Agreement does not require Senate action. Presidents from Washington onward — including Ronald Reagan, who did it 14 times in his second term — concluded agreements like this as “executive agreements,” based on existing executive authorities.

These executive agreements have the same binding force domestically as any other international treaty or agreement the U.S. joins. As long as the U.S. president has authority under existing U.S. law to implement the Paris Agreement’s provisions, the pathway to U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement is open, and does not need to include a stop in the Senate.

As it did with the Minamata Convention on Mercury, the U.S. can join the Agreement by simply depositing a brief formal document (called an “instrument of acceptance”) with the UN.

4) Early implementation of the Paris Agreement is now more likely.

Language in the draft agreement preventing it from taking effect until 2020 was dropped during the final stages of negotiations in Paris, so the Agreement will enter into force 30 days after at least 55 countries representing at least 55% of global emissions join.

Together with important statements from the U.S. and China (which together represent almost 38% of the world’s emissions) indicating they will sign the Agreement on April 22, and formally join the Agreement this year, the record-breaking signing ceremony means that many countries are on the path to joining the Agreement soon.

The Paris Agreement is likely to enter into force well before 2020, and possibly by 2017, making the provisions of the Agreement legally binding on those countries that have joined. Early entry into force offers the opportunity to accelerate a global transition to the prosperous, carbon-neutral economies of the future, and better address the needs of those communities in the U.S. and abroad that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

5) Momentum is building for markets to play a central role in meeting the ambitious climate goals agreed in Paris, and called for by science.

The groundswell of international support for the Paris Agreement contributes to confidence that countries can achieve the Paris Agreement’s vision of international cooperation on carbon markets to reduce emissions. Only by harnessing the ingenuity and creativity of business, entrepreneurs, and innovators will we be able to drive down emissions fast enough and far enough to achieve the reductions that the science demands. An April 14 report by EDF and the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) found countries can surpass their Paris pledges by pricing carbon through carbon markets.

By affirming a role for carbon markets, the Paris Agreement recognizes the realities already on the ground, where emission trading systems are at work in over 50 jurisdictions home to nearly 1 billion people. When China adopts a national carbon trading system, beginning in 2017, that number will rise to 2 billion – almost a third of the world’s population.

The Paris Agreement provides a framework for cooperation among jurisdictions, but nations still must step up with effective and transparent domestic carbon markets. Almost half of all countries have already either stated their intention to use international carbon markets to cut their carbon pollution, or are already employing them domestically, at the national or subnational level.

6) Accelerated action on forest protection is a key to global and national efforts to reduce emissions.

Many of the countries participating in the New York signing ceremony are taking important steps to protect their forests, under an agreed international framework for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+). Forests are the only sector specifically mentioned in the Paris Agreement, signaling political recognition of the urgent need for better protections as well as financial incentives that confirm that forests are more valuable alive than dead. Outside of the climate negotiations, Germany, Norway and the UK confirmed their support by pledging $5 billion in REDD+ funding between 2015-2020, while developing countries presented their progress on creating and implementing REDD+ programs.

7) Clear and growing momentum to implement the Paris Agreement shines a spotlight on the next big climate win the world needs: adoption of a global market-based measure in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

International aviation wasn’t covered in the Paris Agreement, due in part to these emissions falling outside national emissions accounts. However, the UN’s aviation arm is working on a deal this fall that would limit emissions from this rapidly growing sector. ICAO is developing a proposal for airlines to offset all emissions above 2020 levels through high-quality, rigorously verified emissions reductions in other sectors – such as through reductions in emissions from deforestation, achieved under the UNFCCC's "REDD+ Framework". A cap on aviation at 2020 levels could achieve 8 billion tons of emissions reductions in the next two decades – reductions that would otherwise not be obtained under the Paris Agreement.

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