Over 150 Countries Sign Paris Climate Change Pact on Earth Day

World leaders gathered at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, where the terms of the Paris Agreement were agreed upon. (Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Wikimedia Commons)

More than 150 countries will sign the historic Paris Agreement on Friday during a ceremony at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

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"Today is a day to mark and to celebrate the hard work done by so many to win the battle of securing the Paris Agreement," said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the ceremony. "But knowing what we know, this is also a day to recommit ourselves to actually win this war.

"Today as we think of the hard work ahead, I am reminded of Nelson Mandela's very simple words: 'It always seems impossible, until it is done.' And while it isn't done yet, today we are on the march."

The terms of the global pact were agreed upon by 195 countries on Dec. 12, 2015, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, but Friday – Earth Day – marks the first day of the yearlong signing period.

The objective of the agreement is to decrease greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale and curb global warming. Specifically, the goal is to keep the Earth's average temperature "well below" a 2 degree Celsius increase of pre-industrial levels, an increase some scientists say may result in cataclysmic natural events. As a benchmark, the agreement aims to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Each country signing the agreement must submit an individual plan every five years outlining their efforts to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions and utilize clean energy technology.

Karen Weigert said the pact is unique in that it’s tailored to each country. In January, Weigert left her post as Chicago’s first chief sustainability officer to join the Chicago Council on Global Affairs as its Senior Fellow on Global Cities.

“It’s artful in the sense that it’s very different than climate negotiations years ago,” Weigert said. “This is not a top-down agreement. In this negotiation, every country came forward with what the country thought they could deliver, so it’s very much rooted in the reality of each country’s opportunity set.”

In other words, the agreement recognizes that a developing country won’t be able to invest in, say, solar energy at the same rate that an economically stronger country can.

Criticism for the international agreement has concentrated on the exclusion of any legally binding enforcement mechanisms to hold countries accountable.

This graph shows deviations of the global average temperature from a 1951-1980 base period. (NASA)

Nevertheless, recent climate data highlights the importance of any meaningful, collective step towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

According to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the average global temperatures during January, February and March have made 2016 the hottest year since recordkeeping began in 1880. In fact, March was the 11th consecutive month to break average global temperature records – a record in and of itself. A strong El Niño storm event is to blame for exceptionally high temperatures, but scientists say man-made greenhouse gas emissions are also a contributing factor.

The primary greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, which made up 80 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gases in 2014, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Authority. Carbon dioxide levels are driven by human activities like electricity use, transportation and industrial power. Greenhouse gases interfere with the heat exchange between the Earth and sun by trapping heat that radiates off the Earth’s surface, keeping it from leaving the atmosphere. This increase in global temperature disturbs ecosystems and raises sea levels by melting glaciers and polar ice caps.

Weigert is hopeful the Paris Agreement will take impactful steps towards cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions and lowering the global temperature. She said the means are there, but everyone needs to get on board for it to work.

“The agreement sets the foundation for the actions we need,” Weigert said. “There’s no reason to believe we can’t keep temperatures down. We have the technology, what we need is the scale.”

The Paris Agreement will not take effect until 55 countries representing 55 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions sign on. In a joint statement last month, President Barack Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping pledged to sign the agreement and urged other countries to join them. The U.S. and China are the two of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

Follow Evan Garcia on Twitter: @EvanRGarcia

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