Last week, Rwanda joined the rest of the world to sign the Paris Climate Agreement which was adopted in the closing days of last year in Paris. During Paris negotiations, it was slated for the agreement to be signed on April 22, 2016, as the first day countries can actually show the willingness to live up to their commitment. The signing ceremony marked the first step toward ensuring that the Paris Agreement enters into force as early as possible.Signature by a nation kick starts a domestic process toward ratification, thus enabling the agreement to come into force.
Over 160 countries participated in the signing exercise of the Paris Climate Agreement. On the face of it, the Paris Agreement is probably the best that could be achieved at this place and time and, given the premises, its adoption as a treaty last December was almost miraculous. At a superficial level, we can celebrate for a remarkable achievement to have such an international agreement that reflects a commitment of community of nations in addressing the issue of warming global temperatures—the world’s most intractable challenge. As the global community welcomes the signing of Paris Climate Agreement, let’s ask ourselves: what does it signify in the lens of international law? Does it mean a full commitment or a promise that never can be reneged? In the lens of international law, a signature itself doesn’t mean to be bound by a treaty.
More precisely, a signature is subject to ratification, acceptance or approval, the signature does not establish the consent to be bound. However, it signifies a means to authentication and expresses the willingness of the signatory state to continue the treaty-process. The signature, of course, requires signatories to go an extra mile to ratify, or accept or approve. Besides, it creates an obligation to refrain, in good faith, from acts that would defeat the objective and the purpose of the treaty. In a nutshell, signing the agreement is just symbolic. However, as far as treaty-making is concerned, signing the agreement is an initial step that depicts the positive towards a common aim. Therefore, it cannot be taken for granted to mean an aimless act.
In truth, one cannot shy away from saying that signing the agreement is a good sign that political commitment remains strong and countries are committed to ensure that this agreement enters into force as soon as possible.
As a matter of international principle, what really matters more is ratification. As has been reported, so far 10 countries have deposited their instruments of ratification at the signing ceremony.
At this point in time, there’s a glimmer of hope that the two biggest emitters have expressed their willingness, more importantly, to ratify the agreement this year. Currently, the top greenhouse emitters are: China 20.09%, USA 17.89%, Russia 7.53%, India 4.10%, Japan 3.79%, Germany 2.56%, Brazil 2.48%, and Canada 1.95%. In fact, they are responsible for 60.39% of the world total carbon emissions. This calls for, as the principle of ‘common but differentiate responsibility with respective capabilities’, the so-called biggest polluters of earth’s environment to equally take the supreme responsibility to fix the global warming. Ratifying the Paris Climate Agreement should have the same momentum manifested during its adoption. Safe and healthy environment is an inherent right of every earth’s dweller, and it is a ‘common heritage of mankind’. And if no serious actions are taken by all states, the world would be shooting itself in the foot. Who would then suffer? Of course, humanity in general, plus all fauna and flora.
The Paris agreement, however, sets three main components (goals, action areas, and implementation techniques) within the broader objective of Article 2 of the UNFCCC. Most of the attention tended to focus on the figures and, more specifically, on whether limiting the increase in global average temperature to 2 °C is insufficient for some countries and, more specifically, whether a target of a 1.5 °C increase would be more appropriate. Behind this discussion lies a tension between science and equity. From an equity perspective it seems clear that 1.5 °C would be preferable, but such a target would have complex signalling effects because, scientifically, it looks extremely difficult to achieve and, perhaps unrealistic.
The Agreement was meant to send a clear signal to producers and consumers as to the need to shift from a fossil-fuel based economy to a decarbonised one (although the term carbon neutrality was in the end not mentioned), both targets had to feature.As noted by Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), “more carbon in the atmosphere equals more poverty.
We cannot deliver sustainable development without tackling climate change, and we cannot tackle climate change without addressing the root causes of poverty, inequality and unsustainable development patterns”.
Indeed, it will clearly be impossible to end poverty in all its forms, if temperatures are allowed to spiral out of control-emissions. The same is true for sustainable agriculture, water, oceans, biodiversity, human health and well-being, resilient societies and cities.
The writer is an international law expert.