Ratification Math of the Paris Agreement

Everyone needs to calm down, but just a little. Announcements that China and the US will ratify the Paris Agreement on Climate Change this year sparked speculation that the Agreement could enter into force by the end of 2016. The math shows that this is unlikely.

It is true that the Paris Agreement does not stipulate that the agreement will enter into force in 2020. The mandate was to “to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties, which is to be completed no later than 2015…and for it to come into effect and be implemented from 2020.” While 2020 was in the back of everyone’s minds, it was never put on paper, leaving the door open to early entry into force.

The math proceeds on two fronts. First, is a simple tally – 55 countries have to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Signing it on April 22 is not enough. Signing the Agreement is a promise that a country will ratify it. A country then has to take domestic action – such as passing legislation, or executive action – to formally agree to be bound by the treaty. Only ratification makes a country a party to the agreement. And we need 55 parties for the Agreement to take effect (i.e., enter into force).

So far, three countries took the domestic steps to ratify: Fiji, Palau, and the Marshall Islands. Ratification can take time, depending on a country’s domestic legal and political structure. Getting 52 more countries on board within a year is a tall task.

Others have announced their intent. Tuvalu announced it would ratify very soon. India announced its intent to ratify the Agreement on April 22 – the day of a big signing ceremony in New York. This would make India the first major emitter to ratify. With the US and China, another 48 countries need to be on board. This is a daunting number of countries to pass domestic legislation quickly – we’re talking most of the African Continent, or the EU and 20 other countries – but the second front is where the math gets more tricky.

Second, the Agreement needs 55% of global emissions represented by those who ratify. This is a safeguard, to ensure that the major emitters of the world participate before implementation of the Agreement can get underway. The Kyoto Protocol’s experience underlines how important the participation of major emitters is to the success of the agreement, and how difficult it is to bring them on board.

The UNFCCC gleaned the information on emissions for calculating the emissions math. The three Pacific states that already ratified do little to help the cause on the second front. They contribute essentially nothing to global emissions, but are uniquely vulnerable. The heavy hitters will decide their fate, and the fate of the Paris Agreement.

The US and China represent 17.98% and 20.09% of global emissions, respectively. It’s a big dent – 38.07% of global emissions. China could pass domestic legislation to ratify relatively quickly.

The US may be able to ratify – or, more accurately acede to the Agreement – this year, and probably must do so this year. The US became the first party to the Minamata Convention on Mercury through unusual means. The Obama Administration acceded without the Senate, arguing that the Convention required nothing new of the US, and therefore executive action was sufficient. With the bottom-up approach of the Paris Agreement, the same case is possible. President Obama could accede to the treaty (internationally, similar to ratifying, it has the same effect in terms of the math) without the Senate.

With the US and China adding their emissions shares to the ratification bank this year, just 11.93% of global emissions remain. So close, but so far.

One state cannot put us over that threshold alone. There are two scenarios, both seemingly unlikely to fully play out in time for entry into force this year:

  1. A coalition of the ‘lesser’ major emitters: India does ratify the Agreement this year, adding its 4.10% to the tally. This leaves 7.83% – so, so close! Russia (7.53%) could not repeat history and deposit the linchpin ratification – as it did for the Kyoto Protocol. A coalition is necessary, including some grouping of Japan (3.79%), Brazil (2.48%), Canada (1.95%), Mexico (1.70%), Indonesia (1.49%), or Iran (1.30%).


Under this scenario, there are four combinations: India, Russia and one other major emitter; India and at least three of the other major emitters; Russia and at least two of the other major emitters, excluding India; or at least three major emitters, excluding Russia and India.


  1. The EU ratifies: When the US and China deposit their instruments of ratification, the EU becomes the linchpin, representing 12.08% of global emissions. In March, the European Commission started the many steps necessary to get the 28 member states to ratify the agreement. The EU will need time, more time than the average (future) party to the Agreement.

The last wrinkle that the Paris Agreement will not enter into force this year is the 90-day rule. The Agreement enters into force 90 days after the last country informs the Secretariat that they ratified the agreement. By September, both frontlines – 55 countries and 55% of global emissions – would need breakthroughs. That’s 6 months. International relations, and the domestic politics of 55 countries does not move that quickly.

Yet politics is often more about the message than the math. The Paris Agreement is premised more than many other treaties on the messages it sends to the markets – that change is inevitable and investments will flow toward greener technologies. Rapid entry into force will make countries’ actions transparent, and write the message to the markets in permanent ink.


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