By Tim McDonnell
A lot of Champagne was popped on the night of Dec. 12, when diplomats from almost every country on Earth finalized the text of the historic global agreement to combat climate change. In the Paris Agreement, countries committed to hold global temperature increases to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels, an ambitious target considering that the world is already more than halfway to that limit. The deal also laid out a system for wealthier nations to help poorer ones pay for adapting to unavoidable climate impacts.
But finalizing the agreement was only one step on the long road to actually achieving its aims. The next step is happening Friday, on Earth Day, as heads of state and other top officials from more than 150 countries will gather at the United Nations headquarters in New York City to put their signatures on the deal. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was a driving force in Paris, will sign the document on behalf of the United States.
Signing the document is mostly a symbolic step, indicating a country’s intent to formally “join” the agreement at some later stage. In order to “join” the agreement, national governments have to show the U.N. the piece of domestic paperwork—a law, executive order, or some other legal document—in which the government consents to be bound by the terms of the agreement. Some small countries, including some island states that are among the most vulnerable to climate impacts, are expected to offer up those documents at the same time they sign. Other countries will take longer. The agreement doesn’t take legal effect until it is formally joined by both 55 individual countries and by enough countries to cover 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (a threshold that essentially mandates the participation of the U.S. and China).
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