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FEATURE: All roads lead to the signing of the Paris Agreement – Where next?

Kiran Sura, CDKN’s Head of Advocacy Fund, is heartened by the signing ceremony for the Paris climate agreement in New York but says ‘resting on our laurels is not an option’.

History will remember 22 April 2016 as the day 175 countries signed the Paris Agreement sending a clear signal to the world that they are committed to combating climate change. This broke the previous record for first-day signatures for a UN treaty, previously set by the Law of the Sea which 119 parties signed in 1982. The Agreement will enter into force on the 30th day after the date on which at least 55 Parties accounting in total for at least an estimated 55 percent of the total global greenhouse gas emissions have deposited their instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval, or accession.

Fifteen countries have officially ratified the agreement already including Barbados, Belize, Fiji, Grenada, Maldives, Mauritius, Nauru, Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands Samoa, Somalia, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, State of Palestine and Tuvalu.  However, together they only account for 0.04% of global emissions, so we have some way to go before to meet the entry in to force rules.

However let us not escape the fact that this day – 22 April 2016 – was 21 years in the making and delivered what many thought at many times was impossible – a universal and ambitious climate agreement. I have only been part of this process for three short years in comparison, and whether you’ve attended one UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP) or all 21 COPs, whatever part you played: be it in the throes of the negotiations or on the sidelines supporting the cause and those in the process (like me), it was impossible not to feel euphoric, emotional and moved by the enormity of what world leaders where signing up to on this day.

During the opening ceremony we heard from world leaders, representatives for children, indigenous peoples, business, the poorest and most climate vulnerable countries, and celebrities, all rejoicing in the moment but reminding us the real work is now beginning and calling on everyone to make good on the words they are signing up to. In the words of Gertrude Clement a 16-year old from Tanzania, speaking on behalf of our children and youth, they “expect action today, and not tomorrow.” US Secretary of State John Kerry, remarked that “we have the tools and technology at our disposal; the question now is whether we have the collective resolve to act” before signing the Paris Agreement with his granddaughter sitting on his knee.  As a collective we were reminded, by President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo that “many developing countries have already committed to ambition in domestic action”, despite being least responsible for the travails we face.  Now it’s time for others to step up.

The journey so far

Resting on our laurels is not an option. Failing to act and close the emissions gap means life or death for those on the front line of climate change, and keeps many thousands more in abject poverty as the impacts of climate change erode decades of development gains. These are the very countries CDKN has been working closely with over the last five years to ensure they have a strong voice in international climate process, and their needs are represented and addressed.

The existential threat faced by some of these countries was difficult to escape when I visited Majuro in 2013, the capital of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. A low-lying atoll state in Pacific islands with a population of around 72,000 people, with the most populated atoll, Majuro’s highest elevation estimated as being 3 metres above sea-level. It was here I first heard the then Minister for Foreign Affairs Tony de Brum describe the devastating impact of climate change on the country and its people, including frequent flooding and inundation by sea water that damages homes, poisons drinking water, damages crops and washes away the graves of loved ones. The visceral feeling of being completely at the mercy of the elements of a changing climate, feeling what the Marshallese people face every day, brought home to me the importance of making these voices heard at all levels to mobilise action at scale.

I have been fortunate to hear the Minister speak many times since; rallying the world’s leaders, businesses, NGOs and civil society in to action. His words always leave you feeling a profound sense of responsibility to present and future generations to do whatever it takes to get an ambitious climate deal. Indeed, de Brum, now an Ambassador for the RMI, has been hailed as the godfather of the climate talks, the mastermind behind the High Ambition Coalition, and the force behind the RMI becoming one of the first countries to ratify the Paris Agreement – RMI signed second after France, the holders of the COP Presidency. The Minister has no doubt inspired countless others to act like myself, and for his tireless efforts to save his islands and our planet he has deservedly been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Over the last few years the poorest and most climate vulnerable countries have risen in influence and prominence at the international level through the leadership of individuals such as Ambassador de Brum, Minister Jarju from the Gambia, and Mr. Giza Martins from Angola. These individuals have been invited to represent the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable in key forums such as the Major Economies Forum, Petersberg Climate Dialogue – high profile diplomatic forums that have been critical in securing political support for an ambitious global climate deal.  There are many more individuals – developing country negotiators, those that work closely with them over the years – whose extraordinary efforts have ensured the Paris Agreement acknowledged and responded to the special circumstances of small island developing states (SIDS) and least developed countries (LDCs).

Next stop…ACTION

With less than a month to go before negotiators meet in Bonn, Germany for the first time since COP21 in Paris, attention has already turned away from the pomp and ceremony of New York to what needs to be done to develop the international climate architecture underpinning the agreement (e.g. transparency, compliance, capacity building) and operationalise the agreement nationally.

Three factors driving the urgency of this work include (i) the possibility of early entry in to force (pre-2020) of the agreement which was given further impetus by China announcing it will ratify by the time it hosts the G20 summit this September and urging other G20 members to do the same, (ii) the many details and decisions that were deferred in Paris to the next COP, and (iii) the emissions gap and the very narrow window we have to keep warming within safe levels.

Negotiators have their work cut out, as will non-state actors, who now also have an important role to play in delivering action. But let us not forget that of equal importance is helping those communities that are already suffering from the impacts of climate change, and that we have a responsibility to not only help them prepare for the future, but also prepare for the here and now.

Leonardo DiCaprio powerfully laid out the road ahead for those gathered at the United Nations: “No more talk, no more excuses, no more ten-year studies; it’s time to act. We are on the cusp of making history and our actions now will dictate whether future generations laud us, or vilify us.” Which path will we choose?



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