Many longtime climate activists were surprised when negotiators succeeded in crafting and adopting the Paris Agreement on climate change in December of 2015. After more than two decades of false starts, spectacular failures and all around frustration, suddenly a new era of global action had arrived.
Now, it appears that world leaders are not content to wait around for the agreement to enter into force around the year 2020, which was the presumed date given when the agreement was first approved.
Instead, momentum is building towards the early entry into force of the landmark treaty by the end of this year or early in 2017. This will provide countries with a chance, should they choose to take advantage of it, to achieve steeper emissions cuts than were initially outlined in the agreement.
This is considered key, since the cuts contained in the treaty are not nearly enough to accomplish the treaty's actual goal.
Image: Luiz Rampelotto/Sipa USA
The push for ratification is, in part, a reaction to the uncertainty created by the U.S. presidential election campaign, since Republican nominee Donald Trump has said he intends to "renegotiate" the Paris Agreement if he is elected to the White House.
As the world's number two emitter of global warming pollutants, if the U.S. were to slow or stop its cooperation under the agreement, it could torpedo efforts abroad.
“I think everyone is very aware of the potential implications of the U.S. election," said Eliza Northrop, an associate at the World Resources Institute in Washington, an environmental think tank.
"I think that is certainly driving some of the momentum behind early or rapid entry into force this year,” she told Mashable in an interview.
Protecting a 1.5-degree pathway
Other dynamics are at work too, including a continued push by climate vulnerable nations' to find a way to meet the agreement's aspirational global warming temperature goal of limiting warming to as low as 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels by the year 2100.
Image: Glen Peters/cicero
Studies have shown that meeting such an ambitious target would only be possible if extraordinarily steep emissions cuts begin to take place in the next few years — and even then the climate may temporarily overshoot the 1.5-degree target for a time.
Glen Peters, a senior researcher at Norway's Center for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO), wrote in April that just 200 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions can be emitted before global warming will exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
This is equivalent to about 5 years of emissions at current levels.
This narrow window of opportunity means that the start date of the Paris commitments is a critical factor. When the agreement was gaveled through on Dec. 12, 2015, the start date for its emissions reduction commitments was expected to be in 2020.
Image: AFP/Getty Images
This would push back emissions cuts by a few years, which low-lying Pacific island nations view as too risky.
It is no accident that the first three countries to ratify the agreement were the Pacific nations of the Marshall Islands, Fiji and Palau.
“There is still a lot of work to do to secure a safe climate future. This means doing all that we can to bend global emissions trajectories in the direction of the temperature goals we agreed for the first time in Paris — to limit warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, and pursue efforts towards 1.5 degrees Celsius," Global emissions need to peak this decade," said Tony de Brum, the Marshall Islands' climate ambassador and a key player at the Paris talks, in a statement.
How many countries have already ratified?
The number of countries that have already ratified the agreement is now up to 22, including the addition of Ghana on Monday, according to Northrop. These 22 nations represent just 1.08 percent of global emissions.
Ratification, in non-diplomatic-speak, essentially means doing what a country needs to do in order to officially join an international agreement. For one nation that might mean a parliamentary vote, while for another it might only involve action by a president and his or her government agencies.
In order for the agreement to enter into force, at least 55 countries representing 55 percent of global emissions would need to formally join the agreement.
Many more countries, however, have already said they intend to join the Paris Agreement by the end of 2016.
According to an analysis released this week by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Marshall Islands, around 58 countries together representing nearly 54 percent of global emissions have now ratified or pledged to work towards the ratification of the Paris Agreement by the end of the year.
This includes the U.S. and China, which are the top two global emitters.
Assuming all these nations do join the agreement this year, then a 2016 entry into force would only require Russia, India, Japan, Brazil, South Korea, South Africa or Turkey to also ratify the agreement in 2016, the Marshall Islands analysis found.
To try to accelerate the ratification process, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has invited world leaders to a high-level event on Sept. 21, 2016 that will be focused on showcasing progress toward ratifying the agreement.
Northrop says that day is shaping up to be focused squarely on raising the number of countries that have formally joined.
“We’re expecting to see a lot of countries coming forward on that day,” she told Mashable.
Mr. Ban has made climate change a signature issue of his tenure at the helm of the U.N., and held a similar gathering in April during which 175 countries signed the agreement. Mr. Ban's term ends at the end of this year.
Northrop says that WRI's analysis of the global ratification process doesn't give the same result as the Marshall Islands report, but that it does appear that the agreement will enter into force much earlier than envisioned when it was first approved.
“I think it’s reasonably likely that it will be ratified this year or early next year,” she told Mashable.