A quick look at the historic Paris Climate Deal that will enter into force on the 4th of November 2016

The Paris Agreement sends a powerful signal that the world is finally committed to a low-carbon future, and it promises to unleash investment and innovation in clean energy on an unprecedented scale. The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was held in Paris at the end of last year, and the Paris Agreement, as it is referred to, was negotiated by representatives of 195 countries and adopted by consensus on 12 December 2015.

Like most international legally binding instruments, the Paris agreement has been through a number of stages before coming into full legal effect. Article 21, paragraph 1, of the agreement states that that the agreement “…shall enter into force on the thirtieth day after the date on which at least 55 Parties to the Convention accounting in total for at least an estimated 55 per cent of the total global greenhouse gas emissions have deposited their instruments of ratification”.

These conditions have now been met with last week’s ratification of the Paris Agreement by the European Union. The EU’s ratification follows hot on the heels of India’s ratification a few days earlier, as well as ratification by the world’s two largest emitters, the United States and China, in September. China, the US, the EU and India are the top four greenhouse gas emitters, respectively accounting for 29%, 15%, 10% and 6% of global emissions in 2014. As it stands currently, 75 of the 197 countries that are parties to the Paris Agreement have now ratified it. Given that the required ratification thresholds have been reached, the Paris Agreement will enter into force on the 4th of November 2016.

The extraordinary speed at which the Paris Agreement is entering into legal force is a clear sign that, finally, world leaders are grasping the full extent of the risk of climate change and are moving from talk to action. We could be seeing history in the making and the heralding of the end of the fossil-fuel age. In comparison, the significantly less comprehensive Kyoto Protocol took 8 years to be agreed, and was never ratified by the United States.

The key elements of the Paris Agreement are;

  • To keep global temperature increase “well below” 20C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.50C (this lower threshold would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change);
  • To peak greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and achieve a balance between sources and sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century;
  • To increase the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change;
  • To foster climate resilience and low emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production;
  • To make available $100bn a year in climate finance for developing countries by 2020, with a commitment to further finance in the future;
  • The contribution that each individual country should make to achieve the worldwide goal are determined by all countries individually and are called “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs);
  • The agreement requires the NDC’s to be ambitious, to become more stringent over time, and to be set with the view to achieving the purpose of the Agreement;
  • The NDC’s are to be reviewed every five years, with the first evaluation in 2023;
  • Once the deal comes into force, countries that have ratified it have to wait for a minimum of three years before they exit, should they wish to do so.

The last point is important as it prevents early exit from the agreement. Clearly the drafters of the agreement were anticipating the departure of Mr. Obama from office and the prospect of a less “climate friendly” US president come 2017. The key lesson from the Kyoto Protocol is that for any climate deal to have any chance of succeeding it has to have the United States fully on board. President Barack Obama has been hailed for his key role in the success of the Paris Agreement and now its ratification –  it has been described as his administration’s biggest accomplishment.

And what of South Africa and the Paris Agreement? The Minister of Environmental Affairs, Mrs Edna Molewa, formally signed the agreement in New York in April this year but South Africa has yet to ratify it, meaning that it has not formally joined as a party to the Paris Agreement. Until it does so, South Africa will only be able to act as an observer to future meetings of parties to the agreement and will not be able to participate in any decision-making.  However, South Africa has prepared and submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) to the UNFCCC, a key requirement of the Paris Agreement. The fact that South Africa has signed the Paris Agreement and prepared and submitted its INDC would suggest that it is only a matter of time before formal ratification is submitted and South Africa becomes a full party to the Paris Agreement and subject to the specific legal, procedural and substantive rights and obligations of the agreement.


Image: “U.S. President Barack Obama, right, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon shake hands in front of Chinese President Xi Jinping during a joint ratification of the Paris climate change agreement on September 3, 2016.” Source: Dipnote: US Department of State Official Blog



United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change http://unfccc.int/paris_agreement/items/9444.php

Entry into force of the Paris Agreement: legal requirements and implications https://unfccc.int/files/paris_agreement/application/pdf/entry_into_force_of_pa.pdf

Department of Environmental Affairs https://www.environment.gov.za/mediarelease/southafricasignsparisagreementonclimate

World Resources Institute http://www.wri.org/faqs-about-how-paris-agreement-enters-force