blog / Primer: Paris Climate Agreement

Mon, 02 May, 2016

Primer: Paris Climate Agreement

When the Paris Agreement on climate change action opened for signing in New York last month, six Pacific Island nations were amongst the 15 states who also ratified the Agreement. Fifty-five countries accounting for at least 55% of global emissions must ratify the Agreement within a year for it to come into effect. But what will it do? In this post, we’re looking at what the progress of the Agreement means for the Pacific and indigenous people globally.


The Paris Agreement, an historic agreement to combat climate change and instigate global action at the level of national governments towards a low carbon, resilient and sustainable future, was agreed to by 195 states on 12 December 2015. These 195 states pledged to reduce their carbon output "as soon as possible" and to do their best to keep global warming "to well below 2 degrees C".

In accordance with article 20 of the Paris Agreement, the Agreement was opened for signature (and ratification) at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on 22 April 2016, and will remain open for States and regional economic integration organizations to sign until 21 April 2017 (Mother Earth Day).



For The Paris Climate Agreement to come into effect, at least 55 countries - that account for at least 55% of global emissions - must “deposit their instruments of ratification” (ratify it).

As of 1 May 2016, 177 states had signed the Agreement, and 17 states had ratified it (see here); they happen to be minor carbon emitters who will be disproportionately affected by climate change. That being said, The World Resources Institute say their leadership in early ratification is crucial to getting to the required 55 countries.



As Derek Mead wrote for VICE, the Paris Agreement is notable because “it marks the first time the vast majority of the world's nations have all signed a document saying that we must limit ‘global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels’ with a goal of keeping it below 1.5 ºC, or face disastrous consequences.”

This is essentially what the Paris Agreement does - it sets a goal of preventing global temperatures rising 2℃ or more above pre-industrial levels, with a stretch goal of 1.5℃ - in an attempt to urge implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The Agreement requires every country to adopt domestic-level policies based on their proposed “Intended Nationally Submitted Contributions” (INDCs) in order to reach the 1.5 degree goal. Countries will submit INDCs - updated climate plans - every five years. Notably, the Agreement also establishes the principle that future INDCs are to be no less ambitious than existing ones.

Collin Beck, Solomon Islands ambassador to the United Nations, told Pacific Beat that the signing ceremony on 22 April, though a powerful moment, was the easy part - ratification of the Agreement by GOVERNMENTS, and more ambitious measures to slow down climate change, are what now need to occur. China, the world's top carbon emitter, announced it will "finalize domestic procedures" to ratify the Paris Agreement before the G-20 summit in September.

Rory Mondshein (The National Memo) argued that with the Paris Agreement framework, CITIZENS will have greater access to - and support of - international efforts to address climate change:

“Citizens’ collective concern paired with the imminence of the climate change threat will continue to spark domestic movements for climate change legislation, which will pressure governments into adopting the Paris Agreement at home.” 

But as Derek Mead noted, it is the BUSINESS AND FINANCE SECTORS who will ultimately influence whether or not the Agreement will work:

“For as powerful a message it is for the world to agree on how much warming is dangerous, it's clear that actually doing something about that warming means reworking how the world does business.”

What is required is essentially a major shift in the global economy: weaning the world's largest economies off fossil fuel-based infrastructure and investment, and preventing the world's developing economies from becoming dependent on fossil fuel-based infrastructure. This is why the fossil fuel divestment movement exists.

Even Fortune magazine published this piece last year that suggests dumping coal shares is the way for forward-thinking investors to avoid the risk of getting on the wrong side of a now unavoidable energy transition.

You can read more about what the Paris Agreement stipulates here.



Some climate experts have argued that the ultimately voluntary Paris Climate Agreement is insufficient and nowhere near ambitious enough to avert a climate catastrophe for humanity: including debilitating heat waves, food shortages and fast-rising seas. Scientists have confirmed that the first three months of 2016 have been the hottest ever recorded by a large margin; journalists for The Washington Post wrote that “the Earth itself has upped the stakes for the Paris climate accord.”

In this extensive piece, published just before the signing on 22 April, The New York Times shared this criticism:

“No country has shared a detailed, credible strategy to achieve what scientists think is necessary: ending the era of fossil-fuel emissions and converting entirely to clean energy no later than the middle of this century. [emphasis mine]

And after the signing, VICE’s Derek Mead wrote:

“Even if ratified, it only requires binding nations to set their own non-binding carbon targets, which sounds like the usual climate politics plugging away, even as the world's developing economies race to close the wealth gap with richer nations—a race that threatens to further spur climate change unless those economies are supported in doing something developed nations did not have to do: grow with carbon output in mind.” [emphasis mine]

The world’s weathiest countries made promises to secure the Paris agreement that included billions of dollars in financing for poorer countries; the New York Times noted that if that money is not forthcoming, countries like India could easily decide to walk away from the Agreement. Bianca Jagger argued that even the $100 billions in financing to compensate poorer countries’ for ‘loss and damage,’ mitigation and adaptation is a “drop in the ocean” of what is required. 

In this comprehensive piece for the Huffington Post, Jagger also highlighted how the Agreement is dependent on political will, the realities of domestic politicking around the globe, and a radical transition from fossil fuels to renewables (plus widespread implementation on what the Agreement sets out on sequestration and decarbonisation).



Jagger’s Huffington Post piece also flagged another issue with the Agreement and climate action politics more broadly: willful denial of the rights of indigenous peoples. This is despite official recognition that indigenous peoples land management and care can and do play a vital role in things like forest conservation and restoration - important to the capture of CO2 and regulating CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, has said that “studies over the last year have shown that indigenous peoples outperform every other owner, public or private entities on forest conservation.” In a statement released at CO21, Tauli-Corpuz warned that removing rights for indigneous peoples from the Agreement placed forests and the Climate Plan at risk.

This came after the Center for World Indigenous Peoples received pressure by the United States, the European Union, and Norwegian delegates at COP21 which "caused reference to the 'rights of Indigenous peoples' to be cut from the binding portion of the Paris Agreement, relegating the only mention of Indigenous rights to the purely aspirational preamble."

As Megan Davis, UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Chair, said in her statement to the COP: “Sadly, the agreement asks States to merely consider their human rights obligations, rather than comply with them.” In short, although the essential role indigenous people play in combating climate change is recognised in the Paris Agreement, their rights are not protected.



As Pacific Islanders are well aware, climate injustice is real - though we contribute a tiny percentage of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions (less than 0.03 percent), we are among the most vulnerable to its effects. 

Prior to the Paris Climate Talks last year, Fiji’s Prime Minister Bainimarama articulated this continuing injustice, expressing concern that industrialised nations (including New Zealand and Australia) were likely to prioritise their own economic growth at the expense of low-lying developing countries:

"I fear that our interests are about to be sacrificed, that might will triumph over reason, even though the argument of urgent and decisive action is unassailable all because of the inaction and gross irresponsiblity of what I unashamedly call the coalition of the selfish."

But, as Simon L. Lewis wrote in Nature science journal, “vulnerable states got their message across” in Paris against all odds:

“A new grouping of 20 countries in Paris, the Climate Vulnerable Forum, painted dangerous climate change as a threat to their very existence. The rallying-cry, ‘1.5 to stay alive’, repeated in forcefully eloquent language in the negotiating sessions, increasingly made sense.

The Marshall Islands then deftly revealed a secret ‘high-ambition coalition’ at the talks. It included rich and poor countries alike, unravelling old geopolitical alliances, and so allowing a much more ambitious agreement to be reached.”

The leadership shown by Fiji, Nauru, Palau, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Samoa and Tuvalu in submitting their ratification on 22 April drew praise from Mr Kosi Latu, director-general of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP):

“We congratulate and commend our member countries for their leadership in not only signing but also taking that extra crucial step to ratify the agreement, helping to ensure it will come into force.”

Latu also affirmed SPREP’s committment to working with CROP agencies, their member countries and partners to help the Pacific address climate change - what Latu described as the “biggest threat to island survival.”

The Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, The Kingdom of Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu were the other Pacific islands that signed the Agreement on 22 April; but they are yet to ratify it. The Pacific Standard’s analysis shows that a diverse group of nations, from the industrialized and developing worlds alike, must ratify the Paris Agreement for it to come into effect.

Within the next year, as we wait for more states to ratify the Paris Climate Agreement, the world will see where the priorities (and conscience) of the world’s governments and power brokers  - particular those in the wealthiest countries and nations with the biggest emissions - truly lie.



Words by Pauline Vetuna.


Image credits:

Image 1 - President of the Republic of the Marshall Islands signing the Paris agreement.

Image 2 - StellaMag quote graphic.

Image 3 & 4 - World Resource Institute infographics.

Image 5 - CO21 Paris on flickr.

Image 6 - European Commission infographic.

Image 7 - Clayton Thomas-Muller, indigenous Canadian activist, discusses Indigenous Rights at COP2 in video here.

Image 8 - Members of the Pacific Climate Warriors in Sydney protesting Australia's coal industry. Via Sewell.

Image 9 - Household experiencing coastal erosion on South Tarawa, taken by Government of Kiribati.

Image 10 - Pacific Climate Warriors blockade of Newcastle Coal Port. Ecoshout, taken by

Image 11 - A crowd of allies of Tuvalu protest in solidarity, Copenhagen, 2009, taken by Lauri Myllyvirta.


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