Signing the Paris agreement is a big step toward tackling climate change

(Above) An iceberg on Ammassalik Island in eastern Greenland. Arctic ice data shows rapid melting. (© AP Images)

“We are in a race against time,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the world leaders assembled to sign the historic Paris agreement on climate change in New York on Earth Day, April 22. “The era of consumption without consequences is over.”

The Paris agreement, a consensus of 196 parties to the U.N. Framework on Climate Change, was negotiated in December 2015, to limit the damaging impacts of climate change.

More than 170 countries signed. Fifteen of them took the next step of joining the agreement, a process of formal approval that differs from country to country.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized the importance of signing — and joining — the agreement, saying its power is “the message that it sends to the marketplace” and calling it an “unmistakable signal that innovation, entrepreneurial activity, the allocation of capital, the decisions that governments make” will all support a new energy future.

Kerry noted that global investment in renewable technologies already has outpaced spending on new fossil fuel plants — $330 billion in the last year — and investment is destined to climb. He stressed the urgency to act, as global temperatures trend upward and polar ice melts at alarming rates.

The measures outlined in the Paris agreement are designed to effectively cut greenhouse gas emissions and prevent a global temperature increase that could intensify droughts, desertification, severe weather events and sea level rise. The goal is limiting temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

What’s next?

Signing the agreement initiates processes by each signatory country to formally approve and join the Paris agreement. The agreement will only enter into force after at least 55 parties which represent, in total, a minimum of 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, submit their formal documents of acceptance to the U.N. secretary-general. Kerry said the U.S., which accounts for an estimated 16 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, aims to join the agreement within the year.

“None of what we have to achieve is beyond our capacity technologically. The only question is whether it is beyond our collective resolve,” Kerry said, urging all nations to join.