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The marathon that became a sprint

With India ratifying the Paris Agreement on October 2 and the European Parliament on October 4, over 90 countries - accounting for over 64 per cent of the global greenhouse gas emissions - have ratified or formally joined the agreement. With this, the clock has started ticking for the agreement to come into force from November 4 onwards, 30 days after the threshold of ratification or joining by at least 55 countries, representing at least 55 per cent of the global emissions, had been reached. This means the agreement will have had to come into force when the next climate change Conference of Parties starts in Marrakech on November 14, less than a year after it was adopted in Paris on December 12, 2015.

This less-than-a-year sprint to coming into force could well be the fastest for any major UN agreement. The last time the world adopted a climate change agreement was in 1997 when the Kyoto Protocol was successfully negotiated. However, the Kyoto Protocol came into force only in February 2005, following a seven-year marathon.

This rapid coming into force of the Paris Agreement reflects both the changed sensibilities across the world in addressing climate change, as well as US President Barack Obama's commitment to leaving a strong climate legacy. In 1997, and even in 2005, climate change registered only faintly in the minds of most people across the world. At that time, the necessity to address climate change expeditiously was important only to the average European, and much less important to an average American or Australian or indeed Indian.

However, the situation has changed dramatically. The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the award of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore and to the IPCC focused global attention on the issue. As a result, when a succession of devastating cyclones, droughts and floods struck across the world, and especially in the US, they etched the linkage between natural disasters and climate change into the consciousness of many people. In India today, as in most countries of the world, it is now difficult to find a news story about an extreme weather event without a reference to its causal linkage with climate change. This change in public perception is reflected in political mindsets as well, and addressing climate change is now an important issue both for those who believe in it and those who don't.

At Paris, it was very clear to us, and to the rest of the world, that the US was playing a leading role in enabling an agreement, much as it had in Kyoto 18 years earlier. However, the major difference this time around was the US approach to ensure that the agreement was structured in a manner that it could be accepted' by the US President and did not require Senate ratification. While the legality of this approach would almost certainly be tested in the US courts, it has provided President Obama with the opportunity to leave behind a very strong climate legacy. President Obama, no doubt, believes that the increasing acceptance of the need to address climate change amongst the US public (despite polarisation on the issue) would, over time, help keep the US in the Paris Agreement. And in case a future administration wants to pull out of the Paris Agreement, the disengagement process would require four years-a full US presidential cycle-once the agreement has come into force.

The rapidity of the coming into force of the Paris Agreement has left the world scrambling to develop a new timeline for actions. We will now see the (unexpected) first meeting of the Paris Agreement at Marrakech itself, and nations trying to figure out what actions can be fast forwarded in the four years before the Paris Agreement requirements become operative in 2020. The months and years ahead are no doubt going to be both action-filled and interesting.

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