Paris Agreement and the EU. Leading the pace no longer?

paris_seineWith the focus in Europe being primarily on the consequences of Brexit and on the ravaging terrorism, environmental issues apparently become a secondary issue at best.  While we cannot deny a huge importance of the above mentioned issues, tackling climate change is not something that can be put on hold either. To the contrary, sustainable and innovative environmental policies are indispensable and the European Union, one of the world‘s biggest economies and hence significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters, is obliged to take an active step in collectively taking its responsibility. Despite some troubling moments that will arise as  one of the biggest EU economies is set to leave the Union, it is still not too late for the EU to emerge as one of the pioneers of the most environmentally progressive policies. In fact, the way towards this goal is very clear and rather simple: to ratify the Paris Agreement, the sooner the better. However, the problem arises with the ratification by all EU member states.

A short pre-history of the Paris Agreement

As it has already been reported on this blog, the Paris Agreement, despite its flaws, is the most promising international agreement on climate change mitigation that could help keeping the temperature below the 2°C increase. Having been signed by 180 signatories (and agreed by 196), it is still yet to be ratified. In order to do so, at least 55 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) parties, accounting for at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions, have to ratify it. So far, 22 countries have joined as of August 2, mostly developing countries and island nations, Norway being a notable exception. Neither of the parties that have signed are significant GHG emitters, therefore as for now the Convention covers a symbolic 1.08% share of global emissions.

Furthermore, the Agreement itself is often criticized by not being a binding treaty. Taking this into account, what the European Union really needs to do is not only to convince all its members to vote for the ratification in all national Parliaments. The biggest challenge remains the political will to abide with the ambitious plans, i.e., to accept it as a binding treaty.

Will the EU remain a Global Leader in Climate Action?

One year before The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris (commonly known as COP21), Miguel Arias Cañete, the Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy, baldly referred to the EU as a ‘Global Leader’ in tackling Climate Change. Indeed, the plans for drastically cutting in greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050 still remains the most ambitious goal among the world’s biggest economies. According to the 2050 low-carbon economy pledges, the EU should cut emissions to 80% below 1990 levels. This also means the reduction of 40% by the year 2030. It is also acknowledged though by the European Commission itself that only 40% of reduction is attainable if the current policy proceeds. A target of 20% reduction of GHG emissions has already been achieved, but how about a more ambitious goal to reduce it down to 30% by 2020? (Graph 2) For instance, transport appears to be the most challenging sector in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as the emissions have even moved up, compared to the 1990 level, so a lot of potential for a further reduction lies there.

The most relevant pledge, made by the European Union is 2030 Energy Strategy. It sets the following tasks: a 40% cut in greenhouse gas emissions compared to 1990 levels, 27% share of renewable energy consumption and 27% of energy savings, compared with the business-as-usual scenario. Since the earlier pledge for the year 2020 is soon going to expire, it is important to pave the way for sustainable energy policy for the years to come, namely until the year 2030. This strategy for the year 2030 will have to be implemented as an official intended nationally determined contribution (INDC), which the EU had previously submitted. In fact, the quotas, national targets in GHG reductions are already drawn. However, it seems to be still in a drawer, as the initiatives on the EU level to discuss the ratification talks in the national parliaments across the country are still vague. For instance, one of the most pronounced statements, supportive of earlier ratification, was made by the Council of the European Union on June 20. However, it only expressed support for those who had already started talks in the parliaments or had even voted for the implementation, rather than suggesting the ways to quicken the pace which is too slow. The agreement was mentioned by the most recent European Commission proposal on July 20 as well, primarily focusing on fixing the loopholes of INDC. This is also significant, as INDC, presented by the EU, was criticized by Climate Action Tracker by not being sufficient enough to limiting warming below 2°C.

Overall, notwithstanding an active climate-related agenda, there should be a large-scale action all over the EU, recognizing the duties brought by the Paris Agreement by voting for the proposal in national parliaments separately and finally summing it up as a joint action.

EU-28 vs. EU-27 signature

Another key question arises as a consequence of the outcome of Brexit referendum in the UK. What should be the stance of the European Union towards the United Kingdom regarding the legislation to adopt its INDC and hence to sign the Agreement, as still an EU-28 member? However, with only 2 national parliaments having done so by now (Hungary and France), an attempt to make the Britons hurry up would not yield any results. In any case, the outcome of Brexit has certainly brought a lot of uncertainty into British environmental policy. Now that David Cameron, quite an enthusiastic supporter of green initiatives, has stepped down as a Prime Minister, his successor Theresa May is unlikely to develop an environmental agenda, resembling the one of her predecessor. Changes unfavourable to effective environmental policies can already be witnessed through dissolution of Department for Energy and Climate Change just 3 days after the start of her term. If the leave vote is going to have some negative consequences for Europe as a whole, it will very likely be related to environmental performance. Firstly, the EU loses once a strong proponent of stricter environmental policies of the EU. Secondly, the second biggest economy of the EU will now be able to lead a completely independent environmental policy which is most certainly will not be favourable for quicker Paris Agreement ratification, at least under May’s Cabinet. However, even though it is difficult to predict the future relations between the EU and UK, the EU might still influence British environmental politics, at least throughout the commerce. In the worst case scenario (more theoretical than realistic under current circumstances), the United Kingdom might alter the track and reject the ratification. Its energy sector, dominated by the natural gas and with a coal share of 29.1% is not particularly environmentally-friendly, but the worst would be yet to come, if the British government decided to mine lignite, the “dirtiest” fossil fuel, which the Northern Ireland has in abundance.

The primary and more time-consuming mission for the EU, however, is to ensure that at least everyone who is in (that is, EU-27) shall decide in their national parliaments to legally abide with the duties that Paris Agreement will bring.

Preventing ourselves being left empty-handed

The slowness in ratification the Agreement, while 19 world countries have already done it, makes us pose the question: how long is it going to take? There is no doubt that ratifying the Convention is a must for the European Union. Not only would it acquire the right to participate in further processes, but also demonstrate its unity and commitment to fight the climate change. Furthermore, the emissions from the EU are the 3rd highest after China and the US (8.7%, according to CAIT cumulative data, as of 2012, if a land-use change is also taken into account).

The structure and the complexity of the EU also assume uneven paces among the member states themselves. At the same time, on the official level, the EU is supposed to react in unison regarding the Paris Agreement. Ségolène Royal, the current Environment minister of France, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of COP21 implementation in Europe, believes the EU could ratify it as early as this November, during the UN Climate Conference. Her optimism is challenged by other European countries, indicating the next year as a more likely forecast. But what if the EU will show up too late?

Such a dark scenario should not be completely ignored, as this is what is going to happen if the EU lacks unity and organisation to agree on the ratification by April 21, 2017. This period of time is set for accumulating ratifications and it is quite likely that the countries comprising 55% of emissions will have gathered and ratified it. After all, the absence of China which amounts for more than 22% of global GHG emissions would significantly obstruct reaching the required threshold for the Agreement to be activated. On the other hand, a big loss as it is, the EU’s absence would not paralyze its coming into effect, as long as there were other significant emitters and some 50 other parties present.

However, we still have time to avoid such a dark scenario. The future of European climate diplomacy and thus the future of Earth itself depend on how the EU addresses this important issue.

Further reading

Written by Audrius Sabūnas, a Graduate student in Energy and Environment at Vytautas Magnus University. Audrius is also a coordinator for the Environment and Sustainability among the Graduates of Democracy.

Edited by Elena Zurli.


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