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The Paris Agreement Is About to Make History

The climate accord could enter into force any day now. Then what happens?

By Kate Wheeling


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the United Nations at the signing of the Paris Agreement in New York on April 22, 2016. (Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Historians may look back on this year as a turning point for Earth’s climate.

So far, 2016 has been a year of gloomy climate milestones: we learned that 2015 was the hottest year in recorded history, for example, and that 2016 is on course to dethrone it. In September, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere surpassed 400 parts per million and is unlikely to fall below that threshold again in our lifetimes. But 2016 could also be the year that the Paris Agreement — the climate accord born of the Paris climate conference in 2015 — becomes law.

Nearly 180 countries signed onto the agreement as of April of this year—an important step, though not all of them have ratified the accord internally: At least 55 countries, accounting for 55 percent of global emissions, have to ratify the agreement. Over the weekend, India handed over its ratification documents to the United Nations, bringing the number of countries ratifying the agreement up to 62. But even with emissions giants like the United States and China among the signatories, those 62 countries account for only around 52 percent of emissions.

With just 3 percent to go, the Paris Agreement could be one ratification away from rolling into action. Russia, which accounts for 7.5 percent of global emissions, Japan (3.9 percent), or the European Union (12.1 percent) could each push the emissions percentage over the edge if and when they formally join.

The Paris Agreement could enter into force as soon as a month from now—just in time to bind the U.S. to the agreement before the November election.

And the European Union is keen to be the signatory responsible for bringing the agreement into force. Earlier this year there were concerns that a little thing called Brexit — in which the United Kingdom voted to leave the E.U. — could slow down the consortium’s ratification of the agreement. Even before that, there was significant pressure on Europe to ratify the agreement as quickly as possible.

“We could be in a situation where we have the 55 members without Europe, which would be damaging,” Laurent Fabius, then the French foreign minister, told Climate Change News in April of this year. Indeed, the shame of being lumped in with the countries yet to sign the agreement was a major motivation for the E.U. ministers’ approval of ratification on Friday.

“We would not have been isolated, but in terms of our global leadership it would have been politically embarrassing if we had not been able to show unity at this stage,” an official told the Guardian.

“They said Europe is too complicated to agree quickly. They said we had too many hoops to jump through. They said we were all talk. They even started to question whether our heart was really in it,” Miguel Arias Cañete, the E.U. commissioner for climate action and energy, said in a statement on September 30th. “Today we clearly showed that we mean business.”

At least one hoop remains, however: The European Parliament still has to consent to ratification, which it’s expected to do as early as Tuesday, which means that, by Wednesday, the E.U. could be filing its ratification paperwork with the U.N.

Thirty days after that, the Paris Agreement would enter into force, at which point ratifying countries would be locked into the deal for at least four years. That’s just in time to bind the U.S. to the agreement before the November election, which would make it much harder for Republican nominee and climate denier Donald Trump to “cancel” the Paris Agreement should he win the presidency.

The U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon could be celebrating the official ratification of the Paris climate agreement less than a year after it was announced. Now all the ratifying countries need to do is figure out how to meet the climate goals each has agreed to.