BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When ministers and climate change negotiators from the world’s poorest countries gathered in Kinshasa recently, they were dismayed at a proposal from the Third World Network (TWN) urging them not to rush into signing the new Paris climate agreement at a U.N. ceremony this week.
TWN, a Malaysia-based policy group, had suggested developing countries wait a little, to make sure richer nations follow through on existing pledges of funding and technical help for them shift to greener growth, and adapt to more extreme weather and rising seas.
The ministers and officials representing the group of 48 least developed countries (LDCs) instead issued a statement urging all countries to participate in the signing ceremony in New York on Friday.
They called on them to ratify the Paris Agreement “at the earliest possible date”, in an effort to ensure implementation “as soon possible”.
Achala Abeysinghe, a legal expert on climate change negotiations with the UK-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), said the 37 or so countries at the Kinshasa meeting all indicated they would head to New York.
With around 155 countries now expected to ink the agreement this week - and a handful of them, mainly small island states, well on the way to ratification – there is optimism that the climate deal will come into force earlier than envisaged.
The agreement was negotiated under the understanding it would take effect from 2020. This date was removed from the final text, apparently to create room for the deal to come into effect earlier.
“Early entry into force is a positive sign, but there are also some concerns that need to be addressed,” said Abeysinghe, who advises the chair of the LDC group at U.N. climate talks.
For poorer countries - as for others - signing the agreement is one thing but ratifying it another.
The Paris accord will enter into force when at least 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of global emissions ratify or formally join it in another way.
But while major emitters, notably China and the United States, have said they will pursue steps to adopt the agreement as early as possible, domestic politics may make that a challenge.
In some countries, including the United States, leaders are expected to use their executive authority to accede to the Paris deal. But in others, it will have to be discussed in parliament or congress and, in some cases, will require new legislation, Abeysinghe noted.
“For some of our countries, sensitizing the parliaments and the parliamentarians itself is a big challenge. The concern our countries have is that it will take time for them to ratify,” she said.
If the agreement comes into force before they can join it, they are worried they may be excluded from making crucial decisions, she added.
The LDC group is talking to the Inter-Parliamentary Union about how to raise awareness of the climate change agreement among members of parliament in developing countries, which could help expedite ratification, Abeysinghe said.
The question of what happens if the Paris Agreement takes effect early - with bets ranging from this year to 2018 - before the bulk of countries ratify it is troubling experts beyond the developing world.
According to lawyers with the U.N. climate change secretariat, only countries that have formally joined the agreement could make decisions affecting it.
But those that have not could participate as observers, which may allow them to make interventions and submit proposals on draft texts.
Another option would be to convene the first session of the parties to the agreement, and then suspend it. That would give more countries time to ratify, while discussions on rules and guidelines for the new agreement proceeded under a working group.
Experts with the World Resources Institute (WRI) told journalists the European Union is unlikely to be in the first wave of ratifiers because it will require all 28 member states to go through their own processes first before approving the deal as a bloc - a process that could take some time.
“It is hard to imagine a situation in which other parties to the Paris agreement would not very much want the EU to be part of the decision-making for the critical rules under the agreement, so I think a way forward will be found to include them,” said David Waskow, WRI’s international climate director.
Given that all countries have a vested interest in influencing how mechanisms for transparency and compliance with the agreement will work, among other issues, they will likely want to join it as soon as they can, said Michael Dobson, a former advisor to the Marshall Islands at U.N. climate talks.
“There is going to be an incentive for countries to ratify once it becomes clear that entry into force is imminent,” he said.
Many people think that will come sooner rather than later, especially with China and the United States - which account for around 38 percent of global emissions - having signaled they will adopt it.
That makes the Paris deal different from the current emissions reduction treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, which applied only to developed countries.
It took more than seven years to come into force in 2005 after Russia used ratification as a bargaining chip to gain EU support for Moscow’s membership of the World Trade Organisation.
This time around, the political leverage to be gained from delaying may be minimal. TWN later clarified its controversial advice, saying states should not feel obliged to sign the Paris deal right now if they are not yet ready to put into practice the climate action promises made as their contribution to it.
TWN also urged wealthy nations to deliver on things they have promised to do before 2020, when the Paris agreement had been expected to start, such as boosting climate finance to $100 billion per year. Other experts agree.
Rich governments “have to make some effort to show that even if the Paris Agreement comes into force early, they are not going to forget about their pre-2020 commitments”, said IIED’s Abeysinghe.
Amid all the fanfare around the signing ceremony this week, it is worth remembering that premature entry into force could yet bring political and technical birth pains for some.