The historic ratification, made on September 3rd by the United States and China, comes less than a year after 195 countries agreed at the 21st Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to limit the global temperature increase to no more than 2℃.
The commitment from the U.S. and China is an important step to turn the Paris Agreement into a reality, but there is far more that needs to be done.
The Paris Agreement itself has three components. First, to limit the average rise in global temperature to below 2℃ (3.6℉). Second, countries that ratify the agreement must also agree to finance developing countries and their ability to protect the climate. Finally, ratifying countries must wait a minimum of three years before they may exit the agreement. The agreement is scheduled to come into effect in 2020.
As a ratifying nation, the United States has pledged to reduce emissions between 26 and 28 percent by 2025, while China has only promised to stop its increase of emissions by 2030. It is hoped China will do more than just limit its increase and begin to cut carbon emissions as well.
By those numbers alone, it is not immediately clear why it is so monumental that the United States and China have ratified the agreement. It is because together, the United States and China are responsible for 40 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, making their collaboration paramount.
The important question is, if a nation makes that commitment, how is the Paris Agreement going to be enforced?
The commitment made by each country to limit carbon emissions is referred to in Article 3 of the Agreement as “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs). The contributions will be reported to and registered by the UNFCCC Secretariat every five years. The NDCs will be set personally by each country, and are themselves not binding by international law. This is a potentially fatal flaw.
A commitment to cutting emissions is most simply achieved by moving away from coal power, forcing nations to completely rethink how they produce and use energy. This by itself is no easy task. The average American emits 18 tons of carbon dioxide per year. U.S. carbon emissions come from burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation. In the United States, electricity is the largest source of carbon emissions, with 67 percent of electricity coming from coal. Transportation makes up 26 percent of the U.S. carbon emissions, with 90 percent of its fuel being petroleum-based. Industry, commercial, and residential all use fossil fuels for energy, heat, and handling waste and together make up 33 percent of U.S. carbon emissions.
China is the greatest energy-consuming country in the world. Coal accounts for 65 percent of China’s energy consumption, and industrial coal burning by power plants and cement factories are the main source of carbon emissions in China.
This leads to a greater question and concern: how is this commitment to move away from coal going to affect businesses and ultimately consumers?
The commitment to move away from coal power will put pressure on business and raise prices for consumers, making life more difficult and more expensive.
Now that the two greatest carbon emitters have ratified the UNFCC, it is hoped more countries will follow. As of September 2016, 180 countries have signed the treaty, and 28 have ratified it.
“With China and the United States making this historic step, we now have 26 countries who have ratified and 39 percent of global emissions accounted for, to be exact,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced, after the United States and China signed the agreement. “We need another 29 countries representing 16 percent of global emissions to bring this Paris Agreement [the UNFCC] into force.”
With the current pledges to cut carbon emissions, the projected temperature rise is 2.7℃, above what the Paris Agreement has committed to. What is the importance of limiting the global temperature increase to below 2℃? Climatologists predict the ramifications of not reducing carbon emissions and halting the increase of global average temperature could be catastrophic.
If the status quo continues, there will be dangerous outcomes including rising sea levels, coastal submersion, and more drastic changes to weather patterns such as droughts, and potentially more dangerous and harmful storms. This climate instability could lead to food insecurity and ultimately to displaced populations, climate refugees, and increased violence.
Scientists project that the current rate of global average temperature increase (2.7℃) would mean a significantly different earth: A warmer earth that could be deadly.
“Science has established for quite a while that we need to respect a threshold of 2℃, that being the limit of the temperature increase that we can afford from a human, economic and infrastructure point of view,” the top United Nations official on climate change, Christiana Figueres, told CBS News in an interview.
So, although the commitment from the United States and China is a pivotal step to turn the Paris Agreement into a reality, the work is not over yet.