“Between zero and sum” — The Paris Agreement opens for signature

“Between zero and sum” — The Paris Agreement opens for signature

logo-COP“…We're either all losers or we all can be winners. But we are going to have to decide between zero and sum. We're going to have to decide between zero benefit for all or living life as the sum of all of us. We've done it once. We can do it again.”

- Christiana Figueres (Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) TED Talk: The inside story of the Paris Climate Agreement)


On 22 April 2016, the Paris Agreement will open for signature at the United Nations headquarters in New York in a day-long high-level ceremony.

The Paris Agreement is the culmination of the UNFCCC COP21 climate talks held at the end of 2015. It represents the first-ever legally binding climate change agreement between 195 countries (or ‘States’) to limit global warming below 2°C, effective from 2020.

For a summary of the UNFCCC, COP21 and the Paris Agreement, see our previous posts: COP 21: The weight of great expectations (Week One) and Great expectations met? — COP 21 Paris (The Agreement and Aftermath).

Sign on the dotted line

The Paris Agreement will be open for signature from 22 April 2016 to 21 April 2017. A record number of countries are anticipated to attend the signature ceremony, and to commit their governments to delivering the goals pledged in the Agreement text.

This is where things really get serious. Each country must now actually sign and join the Paris Agreement for it to become operational and have legal teeth. Article 21 states it will enter into force thirty days after the following two conditions have been met:

  • at least 55 Parties to the UNFCCC have ratified the Paris Agreement; and
  • those Parties represent at least 55 percent of total global greenhouse gases

The earlier the requisite numbers of countries ratify the agreement, the earlier the Paris Agreement comes into force and governments can get to work implementing their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and climate finance activities.

The UNFCCC Legal Affairs Programme has published an Information Note which includes the legal and procedural implications in the event of an early entry into force of the Paris Agreement.

Post-Paris developments

Despite the aim of the Paris Agreement to ‘hold increases in temperature to well below 2°C’, the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDCs) submitted by countries prior to COP21 indicate that even if these were achieved, the world’s temperature would still increase by 2.7°C. More stringent actions will therefore need to be taken.

Carbon trading is expected to have an important role to play in achieving NDCs. The International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) and the Environmental Defense Fund in their joint paper:  ‘Carbon Pricing: the Paris Agreement’s Key Ingredient’ highlight the importance of market mechanisms in helping governments cut their emissions further than the minimum amounts promised in their INDCs. The Carbon Pricing Panel, a voluntary initiative between certain heads of state, city and provincial leaders including the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund, also released its Vision Statement which emphasises the value of cutting emissions by putting a global price on carbon pollution.

Climate finance will also be essential to enable developing countries to put mitigation and adaptation measures in place. The World Bank Group recently published its Climate Change Action Plan (CCAP). This set out actions to help countries deliver on their NDCs, aims to mobilise around $25bn in commercial financing for clean energy projects, and to create incentives for the public and private sectors to address climate risks and opportunities.


While it represents an important milestone in the ongoing fight against climate change, the Paris Agreement itself is ultimately just part of an early battle in what may yet prove to be a long war. Ratification and international cooperation is urgently needed to ensure the text is not merely good intentions on a page.

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC gave a recent TED talk in which she expressed that climate change should no longer be characterised as a zero sum game, i.e. a situation in which a gain by one person or side must be matched by a loss by another person or side. It is universal, and affects us all. We all stand to lose if nothing is done. That is why the Paris Agreement, and its impending roll of signatures, is significant. It represents the translation of text into actions, and the first step of letting go of the zero-sum mentality that has hindered progress in the fight against climate change so far.


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