It was a historic moment at the United Nations on Friday, 22 April, as leaders and representatives from 175 countries walked one by one to a desk set up on the podium of the General Assembly Hall, sat down and put their signatures to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
The signing by 175 nations set a record for the most countries to sign an international agreement on one day; that the signing took place on Earth Day was of special significance as it aims to prevent catastrophic global warming, which could lead to worsening droughts, melting polar ice caps and disappearing of low-lying islands around the world.
Signing the agreement is just the first step in combating climate change; it will come into force only when at least 55 countries responsible for 55 percent of the world's greenhouse gases ratify the accord in the coming months. But the likelihood of this happening looks increasingly better with China and the United Nations, together responsible for 38 percent of global emissions, agreeing to ratify it this year, and the European Union, which accounts for 12 percent of emissions, saying it would take about a year and a half for the 28 nation EU-bloc to ratify it.
Already 15 countries have ratified the agreement, if seven more countries along with Russia (6% of global emissions) or India (4%) and Brazil (3%) ratify, the agreement could reach the necessary number and percentage of gas emissions to become international law as early as mid-2017.
"This is a moment in history. Today you are signing a new covenant with the future,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the signing ceremony. “The era of consumption without consequences is over… We must intensify efforts to decarbonize our economies. And we must support developing countries in making this transition," commented Mr. Ban, adding, "We are in a race against time."
In an op-ed that appeared prior to the signing, Dr. Andrew Steer, President and CEO of World Resources Institute wrote: The Paris Agreement reached in December 2015, was cause for celebration, as after years of struggle it set a new course on global climate action. Now, it is time for leaders to roll up their sleeves and determine how to move from commitments to action.
Ever since Paris, a parade of new data points to the perils of delay: 2015 was once again the hottest year in the modern meteorological record. March 2016 was not just record hot, but unbelievably so. It also marked the 11th consecutive month of record-breaking heat globally. A nearly two-decade-long drought around the Mediterranean is the worst in 900 years.
Against this backdrop, many nations are stepping up with climate action and showing the way.
From new solar projects in Morocco and India to plans to offer enhanced national climate commitments by Argentina and Indonesia, momentum toward low-carbon is building.
So, what must happen next to turn the vision of a low-carbon future into reality?
Once at least 55 Parties join and 55 percent of emissions are covered, the Paris Agreement will go into force. Entry into force will show not only political will, but also put in motion the key elements of the Paris Agreement, including the ambition mechanism to increase action over time.
Moving from commitment to action will take hard work and political will. While every country’s capabilities are different, all need to develop very clear roadmaps for how they will put their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), or commitments to deal with climate change - into action. Most NDCs are statements of intent rather than detailed, least-cost plans. Designing the policies and programs that underlie the delivery of the NDCs is not easy, and will require coordinated international expertise.
Countries will also need to determine how they can align their commitments to tackle climate change with the needs of the world’s most vulnerable as spelled out in the Sustainable Development Goals. Also, to actually make it possible for action on the ground, countries with climate finance pledges must help meet the goal of mobilizing $100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020.
Investors around the world must also show they are in line with the Agreement by ensuring financial flows they control are consistent with low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development. Financial institutions need to shift funding away from high-carbon sectors and towards climate solutions.
The Paris Agreement has the potential to spur action at the national level, improve tracking and reporting of climate commitments, encourage greater ambition and make certain that countries have the resources and capacity necessary to effect the change we need. We need world leaders to drive action, with more finance ministers getting engaged as the world starts to implement the Paris Agreement.
We are at a unique and urgent moment. Climate impacts are mounting and the door to make progress is closing. If we want change, we must transform our economies, our energy and our ways of doing business. The framework is set. It is time to get to work.