Record 171 countries to sign Paris climate deal: UN chief Ban Ki Moon

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon speaks during the opening ceremony of the high-level event for the signature of the Paris Agreement, on April 22, 2016. PHOTO: EPA
(From left to right) Ségolène Royal, Francois Hollande, President of France, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, attend the high level signature ceremony for the Paris Agreement. PHOTO: AFP

UNITED NATIONS, United States (AFP) - Leaders from more than 170 countries gathered at the United Nations on Friday (April 22) to sign the Paris climate deal, a record turn-out that boosted hopes of quick action on combatting global warming.

French President Francois Hollande and Canada's Justin Trudeau joined US Secretary of State John Kerry for the largest ever one-day signing of an international agreement.

"This is a moment in history," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said after announcing that 171 countries were set to sign the accord. Singapore is represented by Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan.

"Today you are signing a new covenant with the future," said Ban.

Held on Earth Day, the ceremony comes four months after the hard-won deal was clinched in Paris and marks the first step toward binding countries to the promises they made to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

While the United States, China and India - the world's top greenhouse gas emitters - were not be represented at their highest level, some 60 heads of state and government were set to be among the signatories.

The Paris agreement will come into force as soon as 55 countries responsible for 55 per cent of the world's greenhouse gases have ratified the accord.

The target date for the agreement to begin is 2020, but momentum is building to ensure the accord enters into force much earlier.

Hollande called on governments to quickly ratify the Paris deal and singled out the European Union, saying the 28-nation bloc should "lead by example" and give final approval before the end of the year. But the EU may take up to a year and half for the ratification.

China and the United States have said they will ratify this year and are pushing for others to follow suit so that the agreement becomes operational possibly as early as late 2016 or 2017.

Caught in election-year turmoil, the United States plans to ratify the Paris accord with an executive agreement, bypassing the Senate and setting up a complex process for any future president wishing to pull out.

Moving quickly, 15 countries, mostly island states, have already fully approved the agreement and will formally present the completed ratification to the UN.

Oscar winner and environmental campaigner Leonardo DiCaprio was to address the gathering. "The world is now watching," the actor told the assembly.

Last month was the hottest March in modern history and 2016 is shaping up as a record-breaking year for rising global temperatures.

This year's El Nino - dubbed "Darth Nino" - is wreaking havoc, with droughts, floods, severe storms and other extreme weather patterns.

Agreed by 195 nations, the Paris deal sets the goal of limiting global warming to 2 deg C above pre-industrial levels by moving to clean energy. Ban stressed that the window for keeping the global temperature rise below 2 deg C was rapidly closing.

"We are in a race against time," he told the gathering at the UN General Assembly.

The Paris deal also places an onus on rich nations to help poorer ones make the transition to a low-carbon economy.

The agreement was seen as a triumph for Ban who pushed for the deal throughout his tenure and has listed the agreement in Paris as one of his proudest moments as UN chief.

But experts say the accord was just the beginning.

"Paris created momentum to start to grapple with some of these issues, but it doesn't mean they are solved yet," said Union of Concerned Scientists climate analyst Alden Meyer.

"There is a lot of work to be done yet to adjust to the post-Paris reality" and draw up a workable plan of action.

Added Celia Gautier of the Climate Action Network NGO grouping: "We knew that the Paris agreement wouldn't be a magic wand that would make all the bad disappear. We must keep pushing governments to take action".

This could be through a tax or price on carbon emissions, pulling out of fossil fuel investments, imposing emissions standards for industry, subsidising renewable energy and protecting CO2-absorbing forests.

On Tuesday, global financial firms responsible for tens of trillions of dollars in investments urged the world's leading economies to sign the pact in New York.

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