US and China warm up to the Paris Agreement

The timing of the announcement caught most observers of the struggle against the manmade damage to planet earth by surprise

Yossi Mekelberg

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One, if not the only, highlight of the recent G20 summit in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, was the formal ratification of the Paris climate change agreement by the United States and China. If the commitment taken by the two biggest world polluters is going to be translated into reality, this might be a genuine breakthrough in combating the disastrous impact of climate change.

The timing of the announcement caught most observers of the struggle against the manmade damage to planet earth by surprise. Until this point both countries seemed to procrastinate over the ratification.

Despite hyped statements saturated with truism, this might be the beginning of a more responsible approach to sustainable development. President Obama rightly declared in his remarks that “… the growing threat of climate change could define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other challenge.”

This was followed by another clichéd statement by the Chinese President Xi Jinping, referring to his country’s decision to ratify the 2015 agreement, “A Chinese saying goes: ‘Only commitment and decision will lead to great achievement.’” Considering the overwhelming and irrefutable evidence that human activity is causing irreversible damage to planet earth, acknowledging it and committing to take necessary steps to stop this trend is what should be demanded from world leaders.

Climate change is of course not a new phenomenon; the end of the last ice age ushered in the current climate era around 7000 years ago. However, it did not happen due to human activity. According to NASA, 97 percent of scientists specializing in climate change concluded that global warming is human induced. Data collected by the scientific world shows that the 10 hottest years have all happened since the beginning of the current millennium.

Considering the haplessness the world is demonstrating in dealing with migration and conflict, it stands no chance in dealing with the potential destruction of the political-economic-social order inflicted by climate change

Yossi Mekelberg

Global ecosystem

This in return causes havoc in our global eco-system resulting in a rise in global sea-level, warming oceans, declining of the Arctic sea ice, shrinking ice sheets and extreme weather conditions such as hurricanes and tornados. An increase in the frequency of floods, droughts, and famine, among other consequences of climate change, have inevitable severe social and political ramifications, such as mass migration, domestic upheavals and wars.

Considering the haplessness the world is demonstrating in dealing with the current levels of migration and conflict, it stands no chance in dealing with the potentially biblical proportion of destruction of the political-economic-social order that could be inflicted by climate change on vulnerable communities. This is unless it is addressed globally and radically. It is already evident that the poor are the worst hit by extreme weather, as they are disadvantaged in access to resources.

According to the World Bank this makes it almost impossible for them, “…to adapt or recover quickly from shocks, and they often live on the most vulnerable land because it tends to be the most affordable.” It becomes evident that eradicating abject poverty is becoming harder as a corollary of climate change.

The agreement reached in Paris last December, set a long-term goal for the world of keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial (mid to late nineteenth century) levels with the aim of limiting the increase to 1.5°C. The current agreement attempts to draw some important lessons from either the mistakes of or the changing circumstances since the signing of the Kyoto Protocol.

For instance, the realization that by not including the developing world in the quotas, or allowing countries and companies to buy, generate, or trade ‘emissions credits’, hampered the chances of reducing the emission of greenhouse gases and also distorted the entire process.

There is a recognition in the Paris Agreement that due to significant differences in the level economic development between countries, each needed to devise its own plan for post-2020 climate actions –It should not be imposed upon them. This puts the onus on the 180 state signatories to this agreement, even if some critics suggest that it is unrealistic, and resulted in a relatively slow process of ratification.

The Paris Agreement states that it will enter into force when at least 55 Parties, representing at least an estimated 55 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, join by ratifying it. These numbers were not randomly selected, but intended to encourage China, the US and the EU, who are the main polluters, to take the lead. Hence the importance of Washington’s and Beijing’s decision to be among the 27 states who have ratified the agreement.

Obama’s keenness

Obama has a personal interest in accelerating the pace of ratification, as it is still possible that the agreement might come into effect before he leaves office, and thus would add another pillar to his lasting legacy. It became even more urgent if one takes into account that Donald Trump, who might end in the White House come January, tweeted in the past that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.”

Moreover, more than 40 percent of those who support his party believe climate change is not happening at all, compared to one-tenth of Democrats who share this belief. This served as enough of an impetus for the current president to act quickly.

Reversing, or at least containing the damage to Mother Nature depends on a multi-layered and integrated approach, which will replace many decades of exorbitant and irresponsible use of fossil fuels. In order to make this change education, alteration of the global consumerist economic structure and long term investment in cleaner alternative sources of energy, instead of the instant gratification of the cheap fossil fuels, are urgently needed.

Most importantly pro-active and courageous leadership must play an important role in addressing this issue, especially in regards to the countries that are the major contributors to the emission of greenhouse gasses. Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping have taken a very important step in the right direction by ratifying the Paris agreement.

Nevertheless, only through a sustained commitment by their countries and everyone else around the world, does our eco-system stand a chance of avoiding a global cataclysm fueled by climate change. Then perhaps President Obama’s reflection on ratifying the Paris agreement of, “…someday we may see this as the moment that we finally decided to save our planet,” might gain some credence.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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