Representatives of more than 170 countries endorse Paris agreement to cut carbon emissions, with France’s president saying: ‘There is no turning back’
April 22, 2016 — More than 170 governments declared an end to the fossil fuel era on Friday, using the signing ceremony for the landmark Paris agreement as an occasion to renew their vows to fight climate change.
The outpouring of support – the largest ever single-day turn-out for a signing ceremony – underscored strong international commitment to deliver on the promises made in Paris last December to avoid a climate catastrophe, the leaders said.
“There is no turning back,” François Hollande, the French president, told the United Nations assembly.
The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said signatories to the deal were embracing “a new covenant of the future”. Leonardo DiCaprio, a UN climate ambassador, likened efforts against climate change to the campaign to end slavery.
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, an indigenous women’s leader from Chad, called on countries to following through on their promises. Temperatures in her country were already a blistering 48°C (118°F), she said, and climate change threatened to obliterate billions spent on development aid over recent decades.
“Climate change is adding to poverty every day,” she said.
Friday’s gathering was entirely ceremonial, with schoolchildren and brass bands filling out the UN hall, and John Kerry, the secretary of state, toting his granddaughter in his arms when it came his turn to sign the agreement.
But the turnout – including the presence of about 60 presidents and prime ministers – and stirring rhetoric were seen as an important measure of the momentum behind efforts to bring the Paris agreement into force earlier than originally thought, possibly even this year.
Leaders also reaffirmed previous commitments to help poor countries protect their people from climate change.
Early implementation would prevent the drift that set in with the Kyoto protocol in the 1990s and – crucially with Donald Trump’s ascendancy in the Republican presidential primaries – impose a four-year delay on any future leaders seeking to exit the agreement.
But as the leaders noted, events on the ground are moving fast. Last year was the hottest year on record – and so were the first three months of this year. Temperatures at the North Pole rose above freezing last December, the depths of the polar night; and temperatures there were 30°C (54°F) above normal.
“Today is a day to mark and to celebrate the hard work done by so many to win the battle of securing the Paris agreement,” Kerry said. “But knowing what we know, this is also a day to recommit ourselves to actually win this war.”
On Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, some 93% of coral showed evidence of bleaching, because of long-term ocean warming due to carbon emissions, and the El Niño weather phenomenon.
If countries do not make deep emissions cuts by 2020, they will miss their chance to hit the Paris goal of limiting warming to 1.5-2°C (2.7-3.6°F), leaders and campaign groups warned.
Campaign groups called on governments and businesses to follow through on the rhetoric by ramping up emissions cuts, and protecting vulnerable populations from rising seas, extreme temperatures and other effects of climate change.
“The decisions in the Paris agreement now need to be incorporated into government and corporate decisions by breaking free from fossil fuels,” Jennifer Morgan, the director of Greenpeace, said. “Nature is telling us that time is running out, and running out fast.”
The first hurdle was making the agreement operational by winning approval from 55 countries representing 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
That critical threshold moved closer into reach after the world’s biggest climate polluters reiterated their promises to approve the deal – with some committing to a specific time line.
China, the world’s biggest climate polluter, said it would formally approve the agreement before the G20 meeting in September. The US and India, the second and third biggest emitters, also reaffirmed their intention to approve the deal this year. Canada’s Justin Trudeau said he would present the agreement to approval by parliament next month.
Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, engulfed in a fight for her political survival after being impeached earlier this week, made a personal promise to help bring the agreement into force.
“I take on the commitment to ensure the prompt entering into effect of this agreement in Brazil,” she told the UN.
However, the European Union is unlikely to be in a position to join the agreement at an early date.
Miguel Arias Cañete, the EU climate commissioner, admitted that internal processes, under which the individual countries must first sign off on proposals to achieve the common goal for 2030 of a 40% emissions cut measured against 1990 levels, would make it difficult to keep pace.
More climate-concerned governments such as France and Germany are thought likely to move quickly. But there are still concerns about the response that can be expected in Poland and some other central and eastern European countries.
“This will take some time,” he said in a statement, “but it will ensure that when we act, we will act on a solid legal basis. And let me assure you: it will be done as soon as possible.”
In a pointer to battles ahead, Arias Cañete said that his office was preparing new legislation on renewable energy, electricity markets, energy efficiency and a mid-century low greenhouse gas emissions strategy to be unveiled in 2020.
Fifteen countries – mainly small islands such as Fiji and the Maldives but also Palestine and Somalia – formally joined the agreement on Friday.
The next phase is even more challenging as governments and businesses move to phase out carbon emissions from the global economy – first by targeting economic sectors that were left out of the Paris agreement.
Jonathan Pershing, the State Department climate envoy, told reporters that the US and other countries would now focus on cutting emissions from shipping and aviation, as well as the climate super pollutants, known as HFCs, used in cooling.
“From now we have to ensure that we have a green economic model, one that is no longer based on carbon emissions,” Hollande said.