Can the Paris climate accords be ratified in time?

The Paris Agreement is set to be ratified by many countries at the General Assembly at the UN this week. Officials are optimistic that the agreement will be ratified by the end of the year.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters
President Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly in the Manhattan borough of New York, Tuesday.

Adopted last December by UN consensus during an international convention on climate change, the Paris Agreement aims to begin a systematic reduction in carbon emissions from United Nations member states, starting in 2020.

The agreement still needs to be ratified. But for many world leaders, including President Obama, the deal is too important to wait until 2020.

At the UN General Assembly, there has been a lightning-fast push, by diplomatic standards, to get the necessary deposits of ratification from UN member states to ratify the agreement by the end of this year, a goal that UN officials declared almost certainly attainable last week.

The agreement requires 55 states to ratify the agreement before it can be put into effect. According to the Associated Press, the number of ratifying nations should meet that mark by Wednesday evening. But there's a second requirement: the ratifying countries have to account for at least 55 percent of global emissions, and it looks as though the countries that are planning to ratify the agreement this week may not meet that mark.

Both Mr. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are making the deal a priority this week at the General Assembly. The White House says that they plan to join US diplomats in cornering foreign leaders in hallways in order to talk up the agreement.

"We're very anxious to have it move forward quickly," US climate envoy Jonathan Pershing told the Associated Press. "We are talking to everybody about the urgency."

The push is especially important for Obama in light of the potential change in US climate policy if Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is elected in November. Mr. Trump has said he would cancel the deal.

"The Obama administration clearly would like to see this done before they leave office," Alden Meyer, a longtime observer of the UN climate talks and director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the AP. "That doesn't guarantee that the next president will fully implement Paris, but it would take at least four years for the US to formally withdraw."

For some smaller island countries, the importance of getting the agreement ratified as quickly as possible is amplified by a more immediately existential threat, since they are the first to feel the effects of changing weather patterns and rising sea levels.

Many countries are exploring strategies to speed up the ratification process. The European Union, which for now has 28 member states, is looking into the possibility of ratifying all the states at once, rather than waiting for individual parliaments to go through the process.

"I’m confident that we’ll find a solution," Laurence Tubiana told ClimateWire. "Europe is trying to find a way to overcome the normal institutional difficulties."

While it is unlikely that the agreement will be able to be fully ratified during the General Assembly, it is looks increasingly likely that it could happen as early as the next UN climate change conference in Morocco. The conference begins on November 7.

So far, 29 countries, accounting for 40 percent of global emissions, have ratified the deal, and that number is poised to soar as at least 20 countries commit on Wednesday. Of the countries that have already ratified the agreement, the world's two top emitters, the United States and China, are already on board.

"Over the past seven and a half years, we’ve transformed the United States into a global leader in the fight against climate change," said Obama in remarks on the ratification of the agreement by China and the US earlier this month. "But this is not a fight that any one country, no matter how powerful, can take alone. That’s why last December’s Paris Agreement was so important."

"And someday we may see this as the moment that we finally decided to save our planet," he added.

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