Your Earth Day guide to the Paris Agreement on climate!

This year, Earth Day is being marked by a very special event: the signing ceremony of the Paris Agreement. It is expected that more than 170 countries will sign the agreement on this opening day, which will be a record. But wait, didn’t 196 parties already agree to this historic treaty at the COP21 climate conference in Paris last December? So, why aren’t they all signing? And now that the treaty is signed, will it go into effect immediately?  Here are the answers to all (or at least most!) of your questions on what to expect from the Paris Agreement!  


Why do countries have to sign the agreement if they already agreed to it in Paris?

On December 12th, 2015, the 196 parties (195 countries and the European Union) present at the COP21 climate conference in Paris negotiated and came to a consensus on the content of an agreement on addressing global climate change. For the Paris Agreement to come into effect, however, other steps are necessary.   

The agreement must now be signed, and Earth Day has been selected as the opening date for countries to sign the agreement. As of this date, they will have one year to sign. This signature is important because it signals the country’s political commitment to adhere to the agreement and is a preliminary step towards ratification. Canada’s signature on April 22nd means that our government will now move towards having the agreement passed in Parliament.


Once they sign the agreement, what happens next?

Following the signing of the agreement by a country, they must then have it ratified. Ratification is the legal adoption of the agreement, but this process can be different for each country. Most countries need parliamentary approval to ratify an accord like the Paris Agreement. This is the case for Canada, which will need to present a bill in the House of Commons so the agreement becomes law. 

Fiji, the Marshall Islands and Palau are already in the ratification process, and France has put a ratification bill on the May 17th agenda of its National Assembly. Some countries can skip this step, which is the case for the United States, where the Obama administration is proposing to make it an executive agreement without submitting the text to the Senate. This means, however, that the agreement is only binding as long as the Obama administration is in office. 

Each country will need to formally notify the Secretary General of the United Nations of its “instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession.” In international law, acceptance signifies the consent of the State through its signature alone. Ratification and approval, on the other hand, are similar processes that both require two steps: first the signature to signal a political commitment (in this case, starting on Earth Day) and then the legal adoption of the agreement. 


When will the agreement finally begin to be implemented?

The agreement will enter into effect on the 30th day following the date on which at least 55 parties of the convention will have submitted their ratification, acceptance, approval or accession instruments to the Depositary. This number represents at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions, The Secretary General of the United Nations will act as Depositary for the Paris Agreement. 

The actual agreement, however, will not be implemented until 2020 when the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1997 and extended in 2012, will expire. 


Will the agreement be implemented in the same way in all countries?

Yes, all countries are under the same obligations as outlined in the agreement, however, there could be variations in how it is applied. In addition to setting the goal of limiting the global temperature increase to under 2°C, and if possible 1.5°C, the Paris Agreement also aims to build resilience in dealing with the impacts of climate change. To reach the goal of minimizing greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible, appropriate financial flows will be put in place so that countries, those in the Global South in particular, can achieve their national objectives. 

When countries will present their instruments of ratification, they will also have to determine their first national carbon reduction contribution, in other words, their greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets for 2025 or 2030. These contributions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be recorded in a public registry. 

In 2018, parties will reconvene to take stock of their collective efforts (referred to as a “facilitative dialogue”). This facilitative dialogue will review progress made towards the long-term Paris Agreement goal to peak emissions and achieve net-zero emissions.

Based on the outcome of this facilitative dialogue, Parties will either submit new mitigation contributions or update their existing contributions.

  • Adaptation

All countries must prepare and communicate their plans and priorities regarding adaptation, and which will be recorded in the public registry. The agreement recognizes the necessity to increase collaboration in the face of potential losses linked to the negative impacts of climate change by reinforcing the existing Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage.  

  • Financing

The biggest variation between the obligations of countries concerns financing. In effect, the Paris Agreement recognizes the historic responsibility of developed countries on climate issues, as they are the largest contributors. As such, developed countries like Canada have an obligation to provide financial resources in support of countries in the Global South. That said, parties without this obligation are invited to offer financial support on a voluntary basis. 

  • Transparency

As a way to reinforce mutual trust and promote an effective implementation of the Paris Agreement, a framework for improved transparency has been included. All parties will be obliged to provide information on their greenhouse gas emissions, their progress towards attaining their emissions targets, their adaptation plans and the granting and reception of funds. The agreement takes into account the varying capacity of parties for reporting progress by providing a certain flexibility in the ways that measures taken to address climate change can be communicated. The information will be submitted for technical examination by experts and will be looked at by other parties as part of a multilateral process. 

  • Global assessment

To promote a high level of ambition, a global assessment will be done every five years starting in 2023. As part of this assessment, the collective progress that has been achieved up until that point to respect the measures in the agreement, including the long-term objective. The assessment takes into account attenuation and adaptation measures taken by all countries, as well as the available financial resources, access to technology and the reinforcement of capacities. This assessment will serve the parties to update their intended nationally determined contributions.


How will it be implemented here in Canada and what can we expect? 

For Canada, once the Paris Agreement is ratified in Parliament, we will need to identify targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions for 2025 and 2030, have monitoring mechanisms in place for our current targets, have a plan in place for our contribution to the different financial mechanisms and finally, have a national strategy in terms of adaptation to climate change.  

In fact, in order for Canada to respect the commitments taken through the Paris Agreement, today the Canadian government is launching a series of national consultations on this theme that should lead to the adoption in October 2016 of a Canadian strategy to combat climate change. 


When will countries from the Global South begin to benefit from the Green Climate Fund?

This question is not just linked to the Paris Agreement. The financial mechanism that is the Green Climate Fund was adopted at the COP16 in Cancun in November 2010 and was officially launched at the Durban Conference in 2011 (COP17).   

The Green Climate Fund will allow for the transfer and distribution of $100 billion (USD) that developed countries have committed to raising annually for countries in the Global South between now and 2020, and until 2025. Funds should serve to improve infrastructure and reinforce technical and scientific capacities, as well as to facilitate the transfer of knowledge. This fund will be operational as of 2020.