Facing an Elongated Ratification Process, is COP21 being Hurried Across the Line before Signatories Hesitate?

24 August 2016 Benjamin Walsh, Research Assistant, Northern Australia and Land Care Research Programme


On 12 December 2015, 195 countries agreed on a universal accord to keep global temperatures below 1.5 and two degrees Celsius. The twenty-first Conference of Parties (COP21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopted the Paris Agreement as a structural deal to carry out greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction schemes. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon  called all signatory countries to attend a special event on 21 September to ‘deposit their instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or ascension to the Paris Agreement on climate change.’  Apart from the wishful thinking that has plagued the Agreement from the outset, the UN now faces a more diplomatic problem: ratification. The Agreement only has 22 ratifying countries, which is only 1.09 per cent of global emissions. Given this progress, one could argue that Mr Moon’s special event may be an attempt to put a stop to the signatory’s prevarications and see the Agreement ratified by the end of 2016. This attempted acceleration of the Agreement may be a political tactic aimed at giving life to the Agreement before more countries hesitate and back out of making it binding. This is a daunting challenge for COP21, as it has to wrestle an agreement from entities (states) that, while admittedly seeing the need for a universal climate agreement, believe their national climate interest lies in maximising the say that they have in global climate policy over their fellow signatories.


On 21 September 2016, signatories will have the opportunity to ratify the Paris Agreement so that an early entry of the Agreement ‘can occur sooner rather than later.’ But for an agreement that has been graced with glowing admiration, why is there such haste for a rushed ratification process? Obviously, it may be over genuine concern for the environment and that a major threat such as climate change deserves a lightning response. But the urgency in which the press release was composed highlights a problem facing the Agreement: the signatories themselves. Developments in Europe, The Americas and South-East Asia reveal a pattern of uncertainty, as countries backpedal on support for the agreed schemes for minimising GHG emissions. This reluctance to ratify is a result mainly from the inherent inclination of states to prioritise their national interests.

Developing countries are stalling on their pledge to ratify the deal as they protest over issues of equity. Countries like India, the Philippines, China and South Africa, to name a few, have used diplomatic channels to accuse the US of violating equality. India recently accused the OECD, an organisation of the 23 richest countries, of exaggerating the amount of money given to poor countries in their struggle against climate change. Climate finance is a contentious issue, especially for developing countries, and a debate over the transparency of the OECD reveals a lack of trust between developing and developed nations, and a nascent zero-sum mentality. President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines doesn’t want to honour the Agreement as he believes it is ‘trying to stifle [them].’ He follows a path well-trodden by the developing countries as he states his case on the Philippines not having reached the same stage of industrialisation as developed countries.

Political changes in the Global North, particularly in Europe and the US, reflect a growing self-centredness to climate policy. The recent decision of the United Kingdom to leave the EU could jeopardise the ratification of the Agreement by Brussels. As a member of the bloc, the UK was expected to take on its responsibility as an emissions reducer as part of the EU’s wider “burden sharing” agreement. There is concern that the success of the Leave campaign will act as a rallying call for those climate sceptics that fill the ranks of the Eurosceptics. Britain, and the EU, now have to reconsider their pledges, something that the Marshall Islands sees as a problem. The UK has been told by the Marshalls to ‘stop dragging its feet’ over climate policy. Though Westminster will eventually ratify the Agreement, its withdrawal from the EU has enhanced London’s largely, lethargic approach to ratification; the reassessment of its climate pledge could prevent it from being a responsible power and a role model for developing countries. In the event of a Trump presidency, the populist Republican nominee has threatened to pull the US from the Agreement because he believes that it is ‘one-sided … bad for the United States’ and unlikely to garner support, especially from China, which he accuses of inventing global warming to ‘hurt the competitiveness of US business.’ Though many may believe his chances of winning the White House are receding relative to Hillary Clinton, Trump and his populism still need to be taken seriously, especially given the present precarious state of COP21.

A quote by Henry Kissinger, though somewhat pessimistic, may offer a realistic insight into the challenge facing COP21, ‘No foreign policy – no matter how ingenious – has any chance of success if it is born in the minds of a few and carried in the hearts of none’. A universal climate policy is desired by many, as opposed to a few, but the quote highlights a challenge for the UN: the irrevocable inclination of states to falter on their supposed international duties in the name of subjective self-interest.

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