The UK and other countries have been urged to stop "dragging their feet" over ratification of the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change by Pacific islanders who face losing their homes as the sea level rises.
The Government of the Marshall Islands – among the first countries to legally sign up to the deal – has calculated that enough states have now ratified the treaty or are expected to do so in the coming weeks that it is likely to come into legal force before the end of this year.
However nine months after the treaty was signed, the UK has still not ratified the treaty. While it would be an astonishing U-turn if the UK was to decide not to do so, concerns about British commitment to the fight against climate change have been raised in the aftermath of the referendum vote to leave the European Union.
This was not helped when the Cabinet post of Climate Change Secretary was scrapped and the Department of Energy and Climate Change was subsumed within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy days after Theresa May became Prime Minister.
The Marshall Islands’ President, Dr Hilda Heine, said if the Paris agreement came into law by the end of this year it would be a “big recognition of the urgency with which we must now get on with the job”.
And the islands’ Foreign Affairs Minister, John Silk, added: “There can be no excuse for countries unnecessarily dragging their feet towards ratification.
"We hope many more countries will come forward and pledge to get this done by December.”
Many of the Marshall Islands are only about two metres above sea level and have faced increasing problems because of the rising waters, which have already engulfed a number of small Pacific islands.
Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary-General, has invited countries to submit formal notice of ratification at a ceremony on 21 September.
On 20 July, Business Minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe that the UK Government “remains committed to ratifying the Paris agreement as soon as possible” without specifying an actual date.
The Paris Agreement committed the world to trying to limit global warming to as close to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels as possible. However a subsequent analysis found that individual country's pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could actually allow a rise of up to 3.1C.
This year has smashed previous temperature records with the first half of this year 1.3C warmer, although this figure was inflated by the el Nino effect. Every month for the last 14 in a row has now broken the record average global temperature for that month.
Several EU countries, including France, have ratified the treaty, but member states decided to wait until all 28 have approved ratification before legally notifying the UN. However individual nations can still send a strong symbolic message by going through the process.
Emma Pinchbeck, head of climate and energy at WWF-UK, said: “Quickly ratifying the Paris agreement – and implementing the green policies needed to deliver it – would send a much-needed signal that the Government is serious about climate change following Brexit.
“Given the huge opportunities for job creation that low-carbon growth offers, failure to put renewables at the heart of our industrial strategy would be a hugely surprising blow to our economic prospects.”
And Dr Doug Parr, chief scientist for Greenpeace UK, said: “The state of the climate itself, with the last 14 months all breaking temperature records, should provide the Government with enough incentive to ratify the Paris agreement as a matter of the utmost urgency.”
He added that ratification would help show the UK to be “a good global citizen”.
“The same government that scrapped the Climate Change department would be presented with the opportunity to show it hasn’t scrapped climate change from its agenda and do something truly meaningful by ratifying Paris,” Dr Parr said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which deals with climate change, said: “Tackling climate change is a priority and it is essential in ensuring economic prosperity and security for our country.
"We are committed to ratifying the Paris Agreement as soon as possible."
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