When a record-breaking 175 nations attended the UN ceremony on April 22 to sign the Paris Agreement, Earth Day 2016 officially became one for the history books. But with a whole bunch of technical and official-sounding terms flying around, it’s not always immediately clear what exactly is happening or why. Here’s how to answer common questions your friends – on the internet or IRL – are probably asking about what’s going on.
1. In one sentence – what’s the big deal?
On April 22 – Earth Day – the Paris Agreement became one step closer to having legal effect around the world, as the 195 countries that adopted the agreement in December began signing it – and over 175 signing in person at a special UN ceremony.
2. Wait – I thought the agreement was signed in December. What is happening now?
The Paris Agreement was adopted in December, meaning 195 countries agreed on its contents and a final draft. It was then translated into all six official UN languages and announced clerical errors were fixed. This final version must now be signed by countries, who then ratify it according to their own domestic procedures.
3. Which countries have already committed to signing? Are the largest greenhouse gas emitters (like the US, China, India, and the EU) on board?
Over 175 countries signed the Paris Agreement on April 22 which set the record for highest number of countries signing an international agreement on its opening day. This includes the US and China, who jointly announced that they would sign on Earth Day, and nations including India and Australia have followed suit. Click here to see an up-to-date list of all the countries that have signed on since April 22.
It’s not only important that these major emitters are signing on, but also that they’ve put their commitments on the table. China, for example, pledged among other things to peak its CO2 emissions around 2030 – and according to some analyses looks like it will achieve that goal much earlier than expected. The country will also launch a national cap and trade program in 2017. Meanwhile, China’s pledge to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in its primary energy consumption to around 20 percent by 2030 commits it to installing 800 - 1,000 gigawatts (GW) of zero-emission facilities, roughly equal to the size of the entire current US electricity grid.
The US, for its part, pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 26—28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. India aims to install 175 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2022 – nearly as much as the US has today (~183 GW).
By making these commitments public, China, India, and the US sent a clear message to other nations around the world: the shift to clean energy is on – and it’s time to get on board.
4. What happens now that over 175 countries signed the agreement on April 22?
According to Article 21.1 of the Paris Agreement, the agreement enters into force 30 days after the date on which at least 55 Parties (the UN’s name for countries signing the document) accounting for at least an estimated 55 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have ratified it and submitted that ratification to the UN. Countries can sign the agreement from April 22, 2016 to April 21, 2017 (Article 20.1). After signing, countries have to officially approve the agreement at home, and each will have its own process for doing so. Some of those processes can happen quickly, as we’ll see with the US. Others, such as the EU’s with its 28 member states, will take considerably longer, even years. There is no deadline for domestic approval.
5. Does Congress have to approve the agreement for the US to implement it?
The Paris Agreement, like most international agreements, will not need need the advice and consent of two-thirds of the US Senate to go into force. In very general terms, this is because the agreement does not legally bind the US to any new commitments that it does not already perform under the UNFCCC (an international climate treaty signed and ratified by the US in 1992), such as fulfilling requirements to monitor and report on GHG emissions. Plus, US obligations under the agreement don’t alter existing statutes or require new, implementing legislation. The agreement is therefore treated as an “executive agreement” and all the US must do is have a representative of the president deposit an instrument of acceptance with the UN Secretary-General. That said, it would be difficult for the US to meet its goals under the Paris Agreement if the Supreme Court were to overturn the US EPA’s Clean Power Plan.
This does not mean that the US does not have to take any action under the Paris Agreement. For example, all Parties must submit new commitments and take part in a global stocktake every five years, among other actions.
6. What can I do to encourage my country to keep the momentum for solutions going?
Make your voice heard this Earth Day! Add your name and thank world leaders for signing the Paris Agreement in New York on Earth Day.
Then, spread the word online. Click the buttons below to share on social media or by email.
2010 Official White House Photo by Pete Souza