reflections

Oct 5, 2016 | 00:51 GMT

4 mins read

A Quick Agreement in Paris, but a Long Road Ahead

(KEVIN FRAYER/Getty Images)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Over the past several months, European leaders watched more than 60 countries, including the United States, China and India, formally ratify the Paris agreement to combat climate change. Despite Europe's reputation as a world leader on the issue of climate change, EU bureaucracy still threatened to delay formal ratification. But at a plenary session in Strasbourg on Tuesday, the EU Parliament voted by an overwhelming majority to ratify the Paris accords. The bloc is expected to present its formal papers to the United Nations on Oct. 4, effectively sealing the agreement's enactment.

At least 55 countries accounting for 55 percent of total global emissions are needed onboard for the agreement to come into effect. India's ratification on Sunday bumped the agreement to roughly 52 percent, and the addition of France, Germany, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Portugal and Malta will push the agreement past the threshold, ensuring that it enters force early in November. In coming weeks, the number of signatory countries and the percentage of global emissions reduced could rise even higher, especially if Canada and Japan vote to formally adopt the accord. But enacting the Paris agreement is only a small step on a much longer journey.

Even though India agreed to the measures, actually following through with the accord's stipulations is far from guaranteed. For a long time, India deferred ratifying. New Delhi stated it would not be able to approve the agreement until 2017 and publicly refusing to commit. Given its size, its potential for economic and emissions growth, and the precedent its ratification sets among developing nations, India's success in curbing its emissions will be important to monitor. It remains unclear how the country will pay for the measures needed to meet its emissions targets, but it will doubtless require foreign investment and aid to adopt new technologies. New Delhi faces numerous limitations when it comes to attracting the necessary foreign investment — its lack of adequate infrastructure and onerous bureaucracy are daunting obstacles to overcome. Meeting the ambitious targets laid out in the Paris agreement while still promoting economic growth will be difficult for India. 

Canada, meanwhile, is moving toward ratification, and the country's House of Commons will vote on the matter on Wednesday. Since taking power in 2015 elections, the ruling Liberal Party — led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — has discussed policies in accordance with the Paris agreement's intent. Trudeau announced on Monday that the federal government plans to establish a carbon price for provinces and territories that exceed a base level of carbon pollution. In Alberta, a plan for a carbon tax hike that will phase in over the course of 2017 and 2018 has already been introduced. But Trudeau's proposal is controversial, pitting Canada's most industrial provinces and territories against the federal government. Already, provinces dominated by heavy industry, including Saskatchewan and Alberta, have expressed their disapproval.

Nearly a year after the meetings in Paris to establish terms, the agreement has almost reached enactment. Whether the accord will achieve its goal, however, is another matter. International courts have few enforcement powers, making it difficult to fully ensure that countries meet the targets outlined in the accords. Furthermore, while the United States will not be able to formally withdraw from the deal anytime soon — the withdrawal process takes four years — its future participation depends largely on the outcome of the presidential election.

In spite of the fanfare, the Paris agreement on its own will not significantly alter countries' behavior with regard to climate change. Instead, a variety of political, economic and technological factors will determine how different places change their energy consumption to mitigate the threat of global warming. Each signatory has a different impetus and capability when it comes to implementing necessary policy changes and adopting new technologies. Though the accord encourages adoption and use of new technologies such as solar or integrated battery storage, without continued technological development, the cost of these innovations will remain too great for many signatory nations to afford. These countries will keep prioritizing economic growth in the short term over devoting resources to the long-term problem of climate change. Consequently, countries such as India and China will struggle to replace coal as the backbone of their power sectors. More than the international push to ratify the Paris agreement, these variables will determine the future of environmental reforms. 

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