From Paris to Marrakech: the EU at a crossroads on climate  

Article published on Sept. 19, 2016
Article published on Sept. 19, 2016

The European Union, once undisputed climate champion, today lags behind the United States and China on Paris agreement. National pressures hinder the whole ratification process and the deal risks to come into effect without the EU contribution.

Earlier this month, on the eve of the last G20 summit in Hangzhou, the United States and China, the two world’s biggest polluters, announced they would formally ratify the Paris agreement. Many experts considered the commitment of the two world’s largest economies as a turning point for the global fight against climate change. Brazil as well decided to join the US-Chinese move last Monday.

So far, twenty-eight countries accounting roughly for 40 % of global GHG emissions have ratified the COP21 deal. This latter will become binding only when at least 55 Parties accounting for 55 % of the total global greenhouse gas will have ratified it, as pointed out in Article 21. However, another 20 countries, including Mexico, have recently expressed their intention to take part in the process by the end of September.

Most probably, the agreement will enter into force by the end of 2016 without the participation of the European Union, which is still falling behind. The European countries, responsible for 12% of global emissions, are currently grappling with the effort-sharing deal for sectors not covered by the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS). This will delay the EU ratification until late 2017. 

A lost climate diplomacy

“Many Europeans thought, where is Europe? Why are we not ready for this? Because our decision making process is slower” said Connie Hedegaard, former European Commissioner for Climate Action at 2016 Bruegel Annual meetings, commenting on the announcement by China and the United States. “Climate should be one of the policy areas on which we rebuild the trust of the European citizens”, she added.

In a moment where Brexit and the refugee crisis have further discredited the image of the Union, the European countries shall present the Paris agreement as one of the most tangible and important results achieved in the last years. However, the EU has visibly lost its global leadership on climate also because of the slowness of the ratification process on the climate deal. Member states are expected to ratify the agreement at both European and national levels. While the Environment Council will endorse the Commission proposal on the deal in October, the ratification process at the national level will certainly take more time.

The EU could actually bypass national votes and claim self-competence on the matter. Yet this would ultimately cause a political backlash with certain member states. In the meanwhile, Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, during his State of the Union speech last week, has further urged European countries to ratify the agreement as swiftly as possible.

What is going on at the national level?

France, Hungary and Austria were the only member states already ratifying the agreement in their home parliaments. Others have also kicked off the process. However, many member states waited for the Commission proposal on Effort Sharing Decision to start the procedure. The proposal, published last July, defines national emissions targets for member states in the non-ETS sectors between 2013 and 2020 to achieve the EU overall greenhouse gas cut emissions target of 40% by 2030.

Nevertheless, some countries are still reluctant to approve it and their policies go in the opposite direction of the regulation. Poland, for instance, has recently asked for financial guarantees for the construction of new coal plants. The Eastern European country has explicitly tied up the ratification of the Paris agreement to concessions on coal by the EU. In addition, the Polish government has stated that coal will remain the main source of power generation in the years to come.

It is also unclear in which way Brexit will affect the 40% common target. The United Kingdom was one of the countries contributing the most to the 2030 reduction objective. Consequently, the Commission will have to revise the whole sharing system if the country decides to give up on the EU climate policy.

The European Union should in any case really hasten to finalise the ratification process. Otherwise it will never regain its leadership on the fight against climate change.