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Why ratifying international climate agreements has proven so difficult

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27 September 2016 17:06

Hammering out an international agreement on limiting carbon emissions is hard enough, as anyone who has attended the succession of conferences on such a treaty since the Copenhagen meeting in 2009 can testify. But as the subsequent history of both the extended Kyoto Protocol agreed at a meeting in Doha in 2012 and the more comprehensive climate agreement signed in Paris late last year have shown, the conference itself is only the start of the political saga for these treaties.

International treaties do not come into effect simply because they have been signed by representatives of the governments involved. They have to be ratified (that is, given formal assent) by these governments.

The Paris agreement contains a specific clause that the treaty will not come into effect until at least 55 governments (out of the 190 which signed the treaty) representing 55% of emissions have ratified it. This target has yet to be met; as matters stand, it is expected that these conditions will be fulfilled perhaps by the end of the year, but the process is not straightforward.

In early September, in a bilateral meeting before the G20 summit, US President Barack Obama and the Chinese President Xi Jinping ratified the Paris treaty. The Chinese side is straightforward, but US part of the deal is not strictly ratification, which requires two-thirds majority assent by the US Senate. Ratification is a tough requirement for any treaty, but particularly for a climate treaty in a US Senate dominated by Republicans.

Instead President Obama gave presidential assent to an agreement. The wording of the Paris treaty was changed at the last moment, at the insistence of the US delegation, so that it be classified as an agreement rather than as an international treaty (a 'shall' was changed to a 'should' ). The major difference is that subsequent presidents can simply repudiate the agreement. Presidential candidate Donald Trump has already pledged to do so.

However, Obama's signature still counts as ratification as far as the treaty is concerned, and on 23 September the agreement took another huge step towards realisation when 23 countries ratified it in one session of the UN general assembly.

That adds up to 60 countries on board representing 48% of emissions. But the EU remains a stumbling block, due to Poland. All 28 members of the EU (including the UK) have to agree before the treaty can be signed, but the Bratislava Declaration (issued after an informal meeting of government heads in mid-September) does not mention the issue at all. Instead it concentrates on the problem of refugee flows.

Poland has indicated that it will agree to the EU (which accounts for about 12% of the world’s emissions) ratifying the treaty, but first all of the EU countries have to agree to Brussels giving financial guarantees for three new coal-fired stations, which the country says its needs for energy security. The European Investment Bank, the EU’s lending arm, has a policy preventing funding for new coal plants. The Polish government has also noted that the coal plants will not be profitable if the price of emission permits (which the plants must have under EU rules) become too high.

More than 80% of Poland’s electricity is generated by coal, and the Law & Justice Party of Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, which came to power last year, has vowed to defend the power industry. This hardline attitude also means that Poland has so far refused to ratify the extended Kyoto protocol (also known as the Doha amendment or second extension period) which was hammered out back in 2012. After repeated international meetings, and for want of anything better, the developed countries that signed the original Kyoto protocol agreed to extend it to 2020. When it comes into force that year, the Paris agreement is meant to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

However, that earlier agreement has yet to come into effect. In July a UN statement noted that 66 of the 144 countries required by the original deal have ratified it.  The extended Kyoto deal is no great loss, as it covered only developed countries, and not the big emitters China and India. The US never signed and other developed countries such as Japan, Canada and New Zealand stayed away.

Instead, hopes for effective international emission control system is pinned on the Paris agreement, which may well come into legal force before the start date of 2020. But the treaty does not put any effective limits on emissions from China or India. Instead, those countries have agreed to reduce energy intensity for their economies, which observers have noted is happening anyway.

But even those not very onerous conditions have caused problems. After talks with President Obama, Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi expressed support for ratifying the Paris deal (support which stopped short of a commitment) but indicated that India wanted assistance with financing alternative energy projects and nuclear power plants.

The Paris deal was signed with considerable fanfare, but turning this limited deal into reality has proved a grim and difficult business. 

Photo: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency

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