Last December, in Paris, at the United Nations climate change conference, known as COP21, nearly 200 countries agreed to keep the global temperature well below 2 degrees Celsius to fight global warming, compared to preindustrial levels.

Today, which marks Earth Day, nations will be able to officially sign the Paris agreement, during a high-level signing ceremony to be held at the United Nations headquarters in New York. Already, more than 130 nations have announced their intent to attend the signing ceremony.

Most importantly, on March 31, United States President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that both countries would not only sign the agreement today, but work to ratify the agreement as early as this year.

The US and China are the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters, together accounting for approximately 40 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, major emitters are also taking steps to ratify the agreement as quickly as possible. On April 7, the Basic group — which includes Brazil, South Africa, India and China — released a statement saying that the countries “look forward to signing the Paris Agreement on 22 April 2016 during the High-Level Signature Ceremony convened by the Secretary-General of the United Nations” and that they “expressed their will to initiate necessary domestic processes for ratification, acceptance or approval as soon as possible”.

In order for the Paris agreement to “enter into force” — which means that key provisions of the agreement would become binding — at least 55 countries, representing at least 55 per cent of global emissions, must sign the agreement after 30 days.

Therefore, this year’s Earth Day could be a key moment in the history of humanity if all nations attending the ceremony sign the agreement. This will be a great start and big push for the agreement to enter into force, and it will be the first multilateral treaty in history to enter into force on the first day it opens for signatures.

Needless to say, already, private sectors and countries around the world are taking serious steps towards investment in low-carbon economy technologies, especially in renewable energy.

Once the agreement is ratified, the more difficult tasks for countries will begin. This includes taking action, drawing policies and mobilising investments in various sectors, especially energy, transport and agriculture to move towards a low-emissions economy.

Plant a tree

Earth Day or International Mother Earth Day is an annual event, celebrated on April 22, on which events worldwide are held to demonstrate support for environmental protection. It was first celebrated in 1970. Earth Day’s theme this year is focused on trees with the aim of mobilising nearly eight billion plantings, or one for every man, woman and child alive by 2020.

The link between the Paris agreement and trees is clear — forests will be key allies in combating climate change and meeting the long-term goal of restoring the ecological balance of planet Earth by the second half of the century.

Trees and forests are also crucial in assisting efforts to meet the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), given their role is absorbing carbon, cleaning and cooling the air, acting as natural water pumps to sustain river flows, stabilising soils, protection against strong winds, recycling nutrients for agriculture and supporting habitats for wildlife. In addition, trees play a key economic role as a source in many industries such as buildings, paper, furniture and medicine. Trees help communities achieve long-term economic and environmental sustainability and provide food, energy and income.

In our Islamic culture, planting trees is one of the greatest deeds that a person can do in life for sustainable development. Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) said on the importance and benefits of planting trees: “If the time comes and it is the Day of Judgement and one of you have the seedlings in his hand and able to plant it, he should do so.”

If nations fulfil their promises and sign the Paris agreement today for Earth day, that will send a very powerful message that the world is fully committed to a low-carbon future and that the transition to a low-carbon economy is now unstoppable.

However, one must say that moving towards a low-carbon economy will not happen overnight. It is a long journey that can start today. Still the world, at least in the medium term, will be dependent on oil and gas, which constitutes one of the main sources of energy internationally. Currently, according to the International Energy Agency, oil and gas represent around 53 per cent of the total global primary energy supply. This means that oil-rich countries have a good window of opportunity to use the wealth from oil and gas for investments in developing renewables technology.

Mohamed Abdel Raouf is an independent environmental researcher.