Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock
Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock

Leading up to the date of the signing ceremony for the Paris Agreement (PA), April 22, more than 160 countries had already expressed their intention to formally sign the new legal instrument to address climate change. This will represent the largest collective signing of an international agreement on a single day in the history of international treaty-making. The two current largest greenhouse gases emitters– the United States and China – and a new climate leader, Canada, are among those pushing for an early entry into force for the Paris Agreement.

The April 22 signing ceremony for the PA will be a sharp contrast to March 16 1998, the date United Nations held a ceremony to open the period for the official signature of the Kyoto Protocol (KP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). On that occasion, only 6 countries signed the KP, including four small island nations that continue to be extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise. With one exception (Switzerland), no developed country signed the KP during the 1998 ceremony. Neither did China, India, or other emerging economies. Seven years would elapse before the KP entered into force. The United States, the largest greenhouse gas emitter at that point, would never ratify the KP. Canada would sign, ratify, but would later withdraw from the Protocol.

What has changed? Many reasons help to explain why there is significant more buy-in to the new legal instrument, including the accumulation of scientific evidence about the social and economic dangers of inaction or delayed action and increasing signs that it is possible to reduce emissions without compromising long term economic growth. There is, however, one key factor enabling such widespread support that cannot be overstated. The PA introduces a new system of universal self-defined commitments to climate action, determined according to national circumstances (known as INDCs). This element of the agreement marks the end of a long lasting deadlock between developed and developing countries over the allocation of climate action burdens and costs under the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. The KP model of requiring mandatory emissions reductions only for developed countries reflected a refusal by emerging economies to grandfather the developed countries’ significant cumulative historic emissions. For their part, key developed countries rejected signing on to a legal instrument that left rising emitters such as China and India completely off the hook. The breakthrough came because emerging economies have now agreed to assume a greater share of responsibility for climate action, despite their lower historic and current per capita contributions to the global problem.   

Emerging economies and other developing countries managed to insert language in the PA regarding the required leadership of developed countries in climate action, reflecting the responsibility of the developed world for accumulated emissions and their greater capability to act. In addition, emerging economies succeeded in emphasizing that climate action shall take into consideration their development needs.  Emerging economies have contributed to the broad uptake of the PA, assuming greater international responsibilities for climate action. Whether or not the widespread support for the PA will endure will depend to a great extent on developed countries fulfilling their commitments to lead on the implementation of substantial domestic climate action, while supporting (with technological transfers, capacity building and funding) a fair share of climate mitigation and adaptation in developing countries.  Then we shall truly see a real difference between the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.

Whether or not the widespread support for the Paris Agreement will endure will depend to a great extent on developed countries fulfilling their commitments to lead on the implementation of substantial domestic climate action.
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