Why Paris Climate Agreement Is Finally the Beginning of a Long Journey

Firefighters battle a wildfire as it burns near Potrero, California, June 20. Mike Blake/Reuters

Thirty-one countries formally ratified the Paris climate change agreement at the U.N. on Wednesday. The major diplomatic move significantly increases the prospects that the landmark global warming treaty will now come into effect soon, possibly before the end of the year.

For this to happen, at least 55 countries accounting for a minimum of 55 percent of global emissions must deposit their instruments of ratification with the U.N. With Wednesday's breakthrough, 60 countries accounting for 47.7 percent of emissions have now ratified, including China and the United States.

Video messages from several other countries that have yet to ratify, including Germany and France, were given to the U.N. on Wednesday too with promises that they will ratify the Paris accord in coming months too. Should this happen, these additions will mean that the 55 percent threshold of global emissions target will have been met, allowing the treaty to come into force potentially in 2016.

However, there is at least one big storm cloud on the horizon. That is the possibility, should Republican nominee Donald Trump win November's election, that the United States might seek to 'reverse' its ratification. It is, politically, impossible to get the Paris Treaty approved in the U.S. Congress, and President Barack Obama therefore embedded the treaty through executive actions which could be unravelled by a Trump White House, and indeed are also being challenged in the U.S. courts.

However, while Obama's executive orders could be unraveled, the Paris deal contains a clause that could 'lock-in' U.S. support for the foreseeable future. This is because the deal, once it enters into force, contains a provision that any nation wishing to withdraw must wait four years—the length of a U.S. presidential term.

The formal triggering of the Paris agreement will be a very welcome shot in the arm for attempts to tackle global warming. The deal was reached by more than 190 countries in December 2015 as the successor treaty to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol after years of painstaking negotiations.

In the months since then, the deal has been criticized from two main vantage points. Firstly, some sceptics, such as Trump, argue climate change is a "hoax" and wish to see the deal dismantled, despite the strong scientific consensus on global warming and its potentially calamitous perils.

Secondly, there are those for whom the agreement does not go far enough. As the U.N. itself has concluded, the commitments by states made in Paris, very important as they are, are not yet enough to limit global average temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the level many scientists say we must not breach if we are to avoid the worst risks of global warming.

However, it needs to be remembered that the years of negotiations that led to Paris were enormously difficult and nearly broke down, on multiple occasions. Whereas Kyoto involved a deal for the EU states and 37 developed countries, Paris involved developing countries too and a much wider range of complex issues to contend with.

So, rather than viewing the December 2015 agreement as the end of the process, it must be seen as the beginning of a much longer journey that governments and legislators must now make in 2017 and beyond. The roadmap for moving forward is already clear.

Firstly, implementation of the deal will be most effective through national laws where politically feasible. The country "commitments" put forward in Paris will be more credible—and durable beyond the next set of national elections—if they are backed up by national legislation where this is possible.

And this must ideally be supported by well informed, cross-party lawmakers from across the political spectrum who can put in place a credible set of policies and measures to ensure effective implementation, and hold governments to account so Paris delivers. To enable this to happen, bodies like the Council of Europe advocate dissemination of best practise across legislatures from Asia-Pacific to the Americas, the building of capacity and promotion of common, effective approaches across countries.

It is disheartening that the Paris agreement, despite its stronger than previously anticipated ambition, is not yet enough to avoid the global average temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels being breached. However, the domestic legal frameworks that are being put in place are nonetheless crucial building blocks to measure, report, verify and manage greenhouse gas emissions.

From 2017 onward, the ambition must be that these national frameworks are replicated in even more countries, and progressively ratcheted up. There are clear signs of this happening already in numerous states, right across the world, as countries seek to toughen their response to global warming.

What this movement towards a more robust stance on climate change shows is the scale of the transformation in attitudes taking place amongst many governments and wider societies across the globe. Many countries now view tackling global warming as in the national self-interest and see, for instance, that expanding domestic sources of renewable energy not only reduces emissions, but also increases energy security by reducing reliance on imported fossil fuels.

Reducing energy demand through greater efficiency reduces costs and increases competitiveness. Improving resilience to the impacts of global warming also makes economic sense. And domestic laws also give clear signals about direction of policy, reducing uncertainty, particularly for the private sector.

Going forward, all of this underlines why legislators must be at the centre of international negotiations and policy processes not just on climate change, but also on the full range of U.N. sustainability issues, including the 2030 development goals. Along with governments, lawmakers can now help co-create, and follow-through to implement, what could be a foundation of global sustainable development in coming decades for billions across the world, starting with ratification of the Paris climate deal.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) at the London School of Economics.