When President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping announced their countries’ ratification of the Paris climate agreement ahead of last weekend’s G20 meeting in Hangzhou, they boosted its chances of coming into force by the end of this year, some 12 months after the deal was brokered last December.
To enter into force, the Paris Agreement requires ratification by at least 55 nations which together account for at least 55% of global greenhouse emissions. It will then become legally binding on those parties that have both signed and ratified it. These thresholds ensure that the deal has broad legitimacy among states, but are also low enough to limit the opportunities for blocking by states that may oppose its progress.
Aside from China and the United States – the world’s two largest emitters, which together produce 39% of the world’s emissions – another 24 countries have ratified the agreement.
To get over the threshold, it now only needs the support of a handful of major emitters like the European Union (a bloc of 27 countries producing some 10% of global emissions), India, Russia or Brazil. Ratification by countries such as Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom (each of which contributes about 1.5% of emissions) would also contribute significantly to this momentum.
A new impetus
The contrasts with earlier times could not be greater. Although the Paris Agreement’s predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, was finalised in 1997, it was resoundingly rejected by the US Congress. Its main objection was that the treaty did not impose emissions targets on developing countries, including China and India.
This blocking, predominantly by the United States (although Russia also stalled for eight years), delayed its coming into force until early 2005. Even after that, the United States – by far the world’s largest emitter at the time – continued trenchantly to oppose it for another decade.
Political turbulence around Kyoto stymied the development of a coherent global approach to greenhouse-gas reduction for more than a decade. This contributed significantly to the debacle at the 2009 climate negotiations in Copenhagen, where the United States and China were visibly at loggerheads.
After Copenhagen, a new approach began to evolve – one that better reflected the emissions contributions of fast-emerging economies. This included an inclusive, voluntary approach in which both developed and developing nations nominated their own preferred emissions targets.
These elements, enshrined in the Paris Agreement, were attractive to the United States and China. Moreover, as a treaty carefully crafted to allow countries to draft their own national mitigation commitments and to permit the use of existing laws, the Paris Agreement did not need to be passed by the US Congress. It could be approved by President Obama alone.
It has been widely observed that the recent level of cooperation on climate politics between China and the United States has counterbalanced growing tensions between the competing superpowers in other spheres, such as trade and geopolitical influence (especially in the South China Sea). The unprecedented joint announcement on climate change in November 2014 indicated the two nations’ mutual resolve to reach a deal. The joint ratification ceremony last weekend further consolidates this narrative of unity of national purpose on global warming.
Such cooperation has helped Obama cement his legacy with regard to action on climate change and provides an opportunity for China to ameliorate perceptions of its nationalistic unilateralism on other issues.
It also underscores the urgency of bringing the Paris Agreement into force. The treaty as it stands is largely aspirational – it is a promissory note, promising that everyone will ramp up their ambition together, rather than setting an ambitious course from the outset.
Its overarching goal of holding global warming to well below 2℃ and as close as possible to 1.5℃ can only be met if parties revise and toughen their national commitments. (Presently, aggregate commitments will lead to warming of 3℃ and possibly higher.)
However, the agreement contains mandatory mechanisms for ratcheting up collective action. For instance, it requires parties to strengthen their national targets every five years. Increasing funding transfers to developing countries for mitigation and adaptation will be propelled by its coming into force.
Both these elements are urgent if they are to be effective.
Australia left as a laggard
The US-China announcement not only increases the momentum for ratification, but also increases pressure on Australia. With the Kyoto Protocol, Australia loyally supported the United States and refused to ratify until 2007. This time, similar recalcitrance is likely to be met with strong international disapproval.
However, ratification is only the beginning. Australia will then be required to revise and toughen its targets for 2030 and beyond. Its weak 2030 mitigation target is accompanied by policies inadequate to meet this goal.
The Paris Agreement, once in force, will require a more robust Australian target to be announced by 2023 at the latest. This in turn will further highlight the gap between current and sufficient implementation measures.
The US-China ratification announcement is the next step along a path that must see Australia climb – or be dragged – out of its current climate policy torpor.