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Jenny Yates, our Programme Director, reflects on the signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change by 175 countries and considers the road ahead for climate action.

"The Agreement is enormously important, but the challenges are huge."

John Kerry holds granddaughter while signing Paris Agreement on climate change on 22 April 2016 at the UN in New York. (Photo: US State Department)

Last Friday 22 April, 175 countries signed the Paris Agreement on climate change at a ceremony convened by the UN Secretary-General in New York. This was an encouraging sign of the commitment by world leaders to the historic Agreement made on 12 December last year.

"The Agreement achieved in Paris is stronger and more ambitious than many had thought possible."

Addressing climate change is a key area of work for The Elders. Our efforts focused over the last two years on securing a strong and equitable agreement in Paris. Throughout this time we called for transformative leadership, solidarity and justice in addressing the disproportionate impacts of climate change on the most vulnerable people.

The Agreement achieved in Paris is stronger and more ambitious than many had thought possible. It demonstrates the continued relevance and power of multilateralism, signalling what the UN can bring about when governments, business and civil society are mobilised in support of a shared goal.

It sets an ambitious goal of ‘holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels’. To the surprise of many, the 195 countries that concluded the deal also agreed to ‘pursue efforts’ to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C. This was due to the efforts of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a new grouping of 43 countries most vulnerable to climate change which refused to finalise the Agreement unless it included the 1.5°C target.

Clearly the Agreement is enormously important, but the challenges are huge. Even if fully implemented, the commitments countries made in the run-up to the Paris conference to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions would see global temperatures increase by around 3°C. For the 1.5°C target to remain within reach, world emissions would need to peak by about 2020; however, current projections are that peaking is more likely to be around 2050. On financing to support the transition to clean energy and for adaptation to climate change, the Agreement is disappointingly vague.

"Rapid ratification of the Agreement is important to maintain the momentum from Paris."

The crucial next step on the Agreement is ratification. To enter into force, it needs to be ratified through the domestic processes of least 55 countries representing at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions. To date, 15 countries have ratified and another 19 have announced their intention to do so this year, including China and the US, the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases.

Rapid ratification of the Agreement is important to maintain the momentum from Paris, to cement the Agreement in international law, thereby protecting it from political risk (e.g. a change in government in a big emitting country), and to prompt action in the real economy.

Mary Robinson spoke to UN Radio as the Paris Agreement was being signed in New York. Listen to her interview:

Following ratification, countries must submit their final plans to reduce their emissions.

These ought to be consistent with the plans all countries – developed and developing alike – should be formulating to achieve the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the 2030 deadline. The implementation of the SDGs on agriculture, water, health, education, cities, energy and oceans will all contribute to addressing climate change in the coming 15 years – the critical window for accelerated action if the world is to keep warming well below 2°C and closer to 1.5°C.

Countries must submit new more ambitious plans every five years, with the next set due in 2020 – this is a crucial and key aspect of the Agreement that the Elders called for strongly in the run up to the Paris conference. It will provide important moments when the remarkable coalition of scientific, business, academic and civil society groups that helped achieve the Paris Agreement can shine a light on progress and hold the world’s governments to account. The Elders will continue their own work on climate change in this spirit of solidarity to ensure future generations inherit a liveable and equitable planet.

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