3 Nov 2016

Landmark climate change treaty becomes legally-binding: can the planet breathe easier?

By Rachael Treharne

Friday November 4th 2016 is a day of celebration for Planet Earth; a day that sees the international community take a massive step towards avoiding the potentially catastrophic results of climate change. Today, the Paris Agreement – a universal agreement between countries that sets out a global action plan on climate change – enters into force, becoming legally binding a full three years earlier than was originally expected.

This landmark treaty was first negotiated and adopted by representatives of 195 countries at COP21 (the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), a summit which took place in Paris in December 2015.

Since then, the Paris Agreement has been signed by 191 of these countries and ratified by 94. However, before the treaty could legally come into force, two conditions had to be met. Firstly, the agreement had to be ratified by 55 countries. Secondly, it had to be ratified by countries that account for at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions between them. Both these thresholds were crossed at the same time on October 6th, when the treaty was ratified by the European Union.

The purpose of the Paris Agreement is to spur governments around the world into taking the action necessary to limit global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Doing so would significantly reduce the harmful impacts of global climate change. Ed Perry, BirdLife’s Global Climate Change Coordinator, says of today’s announcement: “The momentum behind the agreement and the speed at which countries have completed ratification is unprecedented, and sends a powerful signal of continuing political will to act on climate change.”

This milestone comes just ahead of COP22, starting in Marrakesh next week, where delegates will start the work necessary to implement the Paris Agreement. These latest climate talks will thrash out the detail of the Paris Agreement, developing rules and procedures to ensure real and equitable worldwide progress on addressing climate change.

The need for the Paris Agreement to be put into action is urgent: already we are edging uncomfortably close to the 1.5°C temperature target outlined in the agreement. This year is almost certain to succeed 2015 as the hottest on record and according to some estimates it could prove to be as much as 1.25°C warmer than pre-industrial temperatures. Emissions at current levels may commit us to exceeding 1.5°C of warming in as little as five years. “We are already witnessing impacts worldwide” says John Lanchbery, RSPB Principle Climate Change Advisor and UNFCCC veteran. “The longer we wait to act, the less likely we are to meet the Paris Agreement targets, and the more ecosystems and the communities and species that depend on them are put at risk.” Worryingly, pledges to reduce emissions submitted so far by countries under the agreement do not reflect this urgency, leaving the world on track to reach at least 2.7°C of warming. For more information on climate change impacts see BirdLife report The Messengers.

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Issues to watch

BirdLife will be at COP22 to push for rapid, ambitious climate action that protects nature and people. You can read BirdLife's key asks for COP22 here. Despite today’s great achievement, there are still many pressing issues that, if not addressed, could derail global efforts to tackle climate change.  Some of the key issues to watch at COP22 include:

Climate action now: The impact from climate change is already being felt around the world and a strong plan for action before 2020 is needed. Nature based solutions, such as conserving carbon-rich forests and restoring wetlands, are proven, cost-effective approaches that are ready to be implemented – but require further investment. Perry says: “The beauty of nature based solutions is that they can deliver on climate objectives while supporting livelihoods and conserving habitats for birds and other species”.

Keeping to 1.5°C: Country pledges are the foremost means of preventing further climate change under the Paris Agreement, but many are not on track to meet the target. Greater ambition is needed, as is clear and thorough supporting information from each country to make it possible to track their progress towards global goals. Guidance and criteria developed at COP22 will lay the groundwork for a review in 2018 to bring fair, far-reaching pledges in line with the Paris Agreement targets.

Making carbon trading work: Rigorous rules are needed to operationalise carbon trading under the Paris Agreement. While carbon trading could deliver effective action on combatting climate change beyond country pledges, under-regulation of a similar, earlier mechanism led to the support of projects with dubious social and environmental credentials. Care must also be taken to avoid both countries involved in trading carbon credits ‘claiming’ the emissions reduction, effectively exaggerating global climate action.

The role of land: Around a quarter of worldwide man-made emissions are accounted for by agriculture, forestry and other land use. This presents a great opportunity to quickly achieve major reductions – an issue highlighted in the Paris Agreement. However, tracking these emissions is complex, and, if not accurately reported, could compromise global mitigation efforts.

The money question: Implementing the Paris Agreement requires extensive financial support. Developed countries have committed to provide US$100 billion each year to help developing countries address climate change. While the progress towards this goal is encouraging, the UN estimates that adapting to climate change alone could cost developing countries three times this figure by 2030. And adaptation cannot prevent all climate impacts. Plans to provide more funding, streamline delivery of existing funds, and increase the share of finance allocated to adapting to climate change will be central to COP22.