Paris Agreement High-Level Signing Ceremony, New York, 22 April 2016 – What does it all mean?

It won’t have escaped your notice that on the 12 December 2015, in the Le Bourget Conference Centre on the outskirts of Paris, a historic climate deal, involving 196 countries, was secured at COP21. Fast forward 131 days and world leaders are descending on New York for the Paris Agreement signing ceremony.

The high-level signature ceremony, and formal opening for signature, are being convened today, Mother Earth Day, by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, as the first stage in the process of implementing the Agreement which will remain open for signature in New York until the 17 April 2017.

Today’s programme of events will kick off at 13:30 (UK time) when the UN Secretary-General opens proceedings. The signing ceremony will follow when over 160 representatives to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will officially sign the Paris Agreement. National statements will be delivered in parallel by national representatives and from 20:15 to 23:00 (UK time), Christiana Figueres, outgoing Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, and COP21 President Segolene Royal, will moderate a High-Level Event on Climate Implementation entitled “Taking Climate Action to the Next Level – Realizing the Vision of the Paris Agreement”. All events will be streamed here.

The ceremony is the start of a push to ensure the Paris Agreement enters into force as soon as possible. The United Nations has listed the countries that have already indicated they will sign the Agreement today and by signing up, a country initiates its national process to ratify the Agreement. Once completed, the country must submit its instrument of ratification to the Depositary under the UN Secretary-General in New York. Then, and only then, will the country be deemed to have ratified the Agreement. This list also shows which countries have already indicated that they are ready to deposit their instrument of ratification at the signing ceremony today.

On the 30th day after at least 55 Parties to the UNFCCC, accounting for at least 55% of global emissions, have submitted their instruments of ratification to the Depository under the UN Secretary-General, the Paris Agreement can enter into force and becomes legally binding for those members of the Convention that have ratified it.

The deadline for the Paris Agreement to come into force is 2020 but it is clear from the above that early entry into force could happen, maybe even as early as this year. I won’t get into the complexities of what this might mean in practice. The UNFCCC Legal Affairs Programme has produced a handy information note exploring the legal requirements and implications of the entry into force of the Paris Agreement – some light bedtime reading!

Analyses of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs to become NDCs once the Paris Agreement is ratified) put us on a trajectory to a temperature rise of between 2.7 and 3.5°C. If the Paris Agreement doesn’t come into force until 2020, the first review of NDCs won’t take place for eight years, by which time we will have blown the 1.5°C ‘aspirational’ target. 

Climate Central has reported recent NASA data that show temperatures for March 2016 a worrying 1.28°C higher than 1951 – 1980 averages for the month, so early entry into force of the Paris Agreement, before the 2020 deadline, would be a desperately needed bonus.

The inevitable photo ops, grandstanding and rhetoric from high-level leaders in New York today will frustrate those of us demanding transformational action on climate change. However, we cannot dismiss the significance of today’s ceremony. With the number of Paris Agreement signatories set to exceed 160, more than have ever before signed an international agreement on its first day of signing, today, according to the UNFCCC, will be a landmark in international law.