Unstoppable Momentum: Thoughts on the Future of the Paris Agreement

Posted by on Oct 18, 2016
Unstoppable Momentum: Thoughts on the Future of the Paris Agreement


Statement from UN Secretary-General on the Paris Agreement on Climate Change:

I am delighted to announce that today the Paris Agreement will cross the second and final threshold needed for entry into force, and will enter into force on 4 November 2016.  

Global momentum for the Paris Agreement to enter into force in 2016 has been remarkable. What once seemed unthinkable is now unstoppable. 

Strong international support for the Paris Agreement entering into force is testament to the urgency for action, and reflects the consensus of governments that robust global cooperation is essential to meet the climate challenge.  

Over the past decade, I have worked ceaselessly to bring countries together to accelerate the global response to climate change. I have visited communities on the climate frontlines, from the Arctic to the Amazon, and I have seen how climate impacts are already devastating lives, livelihoods and prospects for a better future. 

I urge all governments and all sectors of society to implement the Paris Agreement in full and to take urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, strengthen climate resilience, and support the most vulnerable in adapting to inevitable climate impacts. 

I extend my warmest congratulations to all Signatories of the Paris Agreement, and encourage all countries to accelerate their domestic processes to ratify the Paris Agreement as soon as possible before the next Conference of the Parties (COP 22) next month in Marrakesh. 



Ban Ki-Moon’s statement on the finalization of the Paris Agreement in Kigali last week should be cause for both optimism and concern. The agreement is no doubt a positive step forward in combatting climate change, and given the current state of international relations, any successfully ratified deal between 195 countries that has notable social, economic, and political ramifications should be recognized as an accomplishment in itself. Furthermore, David Doniger of the National Resources Defense Council has pointed out that under its current terms the agreement will cut CO2 emissions by an amount that is equal to a complete shutdown of CO2-emitting activity for a total of two years, and Durwood Zaelke of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development has said that the action taken will reduce future warming by one-half of one degree Celsius (which, as we know, is much more significant than it sounds).

bankimoonBut despite its attractive proposed measures, the finalized agreement, and the Secretary-General’s statement in particular, should leave us unsatisfied and wary. The congratulatory tone of Ban’s statement suggests the war on climate change has been effectively won and we humans will live on in greater harmony with the planet now that these steps have been taken. Likewise, President Obama echoed this sentiment in a statement on Saturday in which he called the agreement an “ambitious and far reaching solution” to the threat of climate change, and most of the major media outlets—or at least the few that took short breaks from covering the Trump circus—have similarly portrayed the Kigali meetings as signaling a decisive victory for Earth and its inhabitants.

Defining the climate deal with such language, though, fails to highlight how tenuous this “solution” really is. First, the small steps taken in the Paris Agreement will take years to go into effect. Many developing countries have (understandably) been given extended periods of time before they are required to fully transition to the deal’s regulatory standards. This list of developing nations, however, includes major CO2-emitting nations like China and India, who have been given until 2024 and 2028, respectively, for complete transition. Given the extent of the damage we’ve seen since the turn of the century, another decade or so of continued, and even accelerated, environmental degradation across the globe should be alarming. In addition to these delays, there remain wide-ranging questions concerning the efficacy of proposed mitigation practices like carbon capture and CO2 removal technologies, as well as concerns over how the energy infrastructures in place throughout the world will be able to handle the mandated changes. All in all, the indeterminacy and tedious implementation of the policy changes agreed upon have led a number of environmentalists and climate scientists to criticize the Paris deal, and has even led some to join the ranks of those who believe that we’ve already reached the point of no return; a situation in which even the most radical measures would be inadequate in solving the climate crisis.

And in what is perhaps the greatest cause for concern, the nations that have signed the Paris Agreement will have minimal external pressure on them from the global community to strictly conform to the mandated regulations. In his keynote lecture at last year’s Cultures of Energy Symposium here at Rice University, geoscientist and International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) member Michael Oppenheimer noted that one of the greatest flaws of the Paris Agreement was how easily participating nations could opt out of or sidestep many of the regulations and subsequently have little to worry about with regards to legal repercussions.

Oppenheimer also pointed to the potential dissolution of the Paris Agreement in the event of major political change or upheaval in any of the major greenhouse gas-emitting nations. The election pollutionof Donald Trump, for example, would have a devastating effect on the future of the newly signed climate deal. In addition to appointing climate change denier Myron Ebell as the head of his EPA transition team and “fracking king” Harold Hamm as his Secretary of Energy, Trump has aggressively criticized the Paris Agreement and has promised to “cancel” the climate deal if elected. The same threats to the future of the deal remain present outside of the United States as well, with Canada, Australia, and the UK all confronted with varying degrees of uncertainty with respect to their future relations to climate change policy; thus illustrating the fragility of such an agreement and leaving the likelihood of its full implementation and impact uncertain.

When reading Secretary-General Ban’s statement after the Kigali meetings, the line I was most disturbed by was, “What once seemed unthinkable is now unstoppable.” I feel that such language seems more appropriate to describe climate change itself than the recent actions taken to suppress its effects. The growing rate of anthropogenic climate change over the past few decades—a phenomena best summed up by the name “The Great Acceleration”—vastly outweighs any of the measures ratified in the Paris Agreement to mitigate its effects, and many climate scientists have been quick to criticize the amendments drafted in Paris last year, pointing out the need for significantly more drastic reductions and regulations. Secretary-General Ban’s statement comes just days after it was announced that global CO2 levels had permanently gone above 400 parts per million (ppm), and only weeks after 2016 was prematurely announced as having surpassed 2015 as the hottest year ever recorded. “Unstoppable” is certainly a fitting term for describing the major milestones we have reached over the past few weeks, yet what appears to be the most visible unstoppable force remains the continued degradation of the biosphere and not the progressive action celebrated by Ban.

Despite the well-intentioned efforts of the United Nations to draft a deal that aims to curb the effects of climate change and keep the planet below that “magic number” of two degrees Celsius, any optimism should be guarded and cognizant of the shortcomings of the Paris Agreement. By the time its amendments fully go into effect worldwide, they will likely need to be adjusted, thereby exposing the inherent challenges in any regulatory deal that seeks to confront a dynamic, ever-accelerating problem like climate change. The victory rhetoric we see in statements like the one made by Ban have no place in discussions of the climate deal, and what should really be stressed is how precarious our situation remains.



Kevin MacDonnell is a CENHS predoctoral fellow, Diana Hobby editorial fellow, and PhD student in English at Rice University. His research explores the ways in which 17th and 18th century literature and philosophy contributed to the development of early theories of energy and the environment.