Skip to Content

The Paris Climate Accord Just Passed a Crucial Threshold

The landmark agreement could enter into force before the end of the year.
September 21, 2016

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s getting hot in here. “Here” being Earth. July and August both set records for the hottest ever, and 2016 is all but guaranteed to be the warmest year on record. But if we’re lucky, what really sets this year apart is that it could be the moment when we as a civilization finally decided to put a stop to global warming.

That was the take-home message from the United Nation’s General Assembly meeting today, where Secretary General Ban Ki-moon led the announcement that an additional 31 countries have signed on to the Paris climate accord. That brings the total number of countries formally on board to 60, accounting for nearly 48 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

In order for the agreement made last year at the UN’s COP 21 climate meeting to go into effect, 55 countries representing 55 percent of emissions must sign on. With one of the two major thresholds reached and the other near at hand, Ban told the assembly he was “ever more confident” that the accord would be ratified this year—perhaps even before the next UN climate meeting in November.

While it would be a landmark achievement, meeting the agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 2 °C above pre-industrial levels will require a Herculean effort. For one thing, we’re already almost halfway there. And while global emissions have dropped a bit, the progress is fragile, and emissions in developing countries are expected to keep growing through the middle of the next decade.

What’s more, a recent UN study suggests that hitting the 2 °C goal is going to cost around $90 trillion over the next 15 years (to say nothing of the Paris agreement’s 1.5 °C “aspirational” goal). There’s an argument to be made that that’s indeed possible, and making the cessation of global warming a matter of international law will certainly help. But that same argument says that a bunch of world leaders signing laws won’t be anywhere close to enough—private capital is going to need to step in big time.

If Ban is right and the Paris agreement does go into effect sooner rather than later, it will be an encouraging symbol of international will to fight one of the greatest threats facing our planet. But on its own that’s all it will be: a symbol. Whether or not it translates into action will be decided ultimately not by international fiat, but by the world’s national and local governments stepping up and realizing that taking steps to ward off warming will help create one of the most important things any government can bestow on its people: an environment in which to thrive.

(Read more: The Guardian, “Have Global CO2 Emissions Peaked?” “Six Months after Paris Accord, We’re Losing the Climate-Change Battle”)

Keep Reading

Most Popular

AGI is just chatter for now concept
AGI is just chatter for now concept

The hype around DeepMind’s new AI model misses what’s actually cool about it

Some worry that the chatter about these tools is doing the whole field a disservice.

Hoan Ton-That, CEO of Clearview AI
Hoan Ton-That, CEO of Clearview AI

The walls are closing in on Clearview AI

The controversial face recognition company was just fined $10 million for scraping UK faces from the web. That might not be the end of it.

Europe's AI Act concept
Europe's AI Act concept

A quick guide to the most important AI law you’ve never heard of

The European Union is planning new legislation aimed at curbing the worst harms associated with artificial intelligence.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.