The EU’s ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ on climate action

Many coastal areas will be consumed by the waves as sea levels rise. [Nathan Siemers/Flickr]

Until the EU can agree on how to share its responsibility for climate action, it will not be able to sign the Paris deal. An ambitious coalition could accelerate this process. EURACTIV France reports.

As 165 heads of state and ministers of environment meet today (22 April) in New York for the official signing of the Paris Agreement, the European Union’s inability to resolve its internal divisions will deal a heavy blow to the bloc’s credibility as a self-proclaimed leader on climate action.

While European Commission Vice-President for Energy Maroš Šefčovič will add the European Union’s symbolic signature to the agreement in New York, he is unable to officially ratify the COP 21 deal.

INFOGRAPHIC: The COP21 decisions at a glance

On 12 December, world governments concluded a historic international agreement to fight global warming at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris.

The EU has committed to a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030, but has not detailed how this goal will be achieved: the sharing of efforts between the 28 countries has yet to be finalised.

A prisoner’s dilemma in the East

“We have convinced ourselves in Europe that we are the leaders on climate change… but others could quickly emerge. We really have to be careful not to waste time,” Teresa Ribera, the director of the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI), said at a conference on the climate negotiations on Monday (18 April).

Laurence Tubiana, France’s lead climate negotiator and one of the architects of the Paris Agreement, believes the EU’s ambiguous position represents a real challenge, and not just for Europe. “This situation is a prisoner’s dilemma,” the specialist said: all EU countries would benefit from closer cooperation, but only if they are all willing to cooperate.

Could the COP21 agreement come into force without the EU?

The Paris climate agreement, the hard-won fruit of the COP21 conference last December, has been a subject of vigorous debate ahead of the European Council summit on 17 and 18 March. EURACTIV France reports.

The EU’s challenge is to commit to a programme that will reduce CO2 emissions by 40% by 2030. Certain countries, particularly those in Eastern Europe, feel they have much to gain by waiting and encouraging their partners to commit to heavy emissions reduction efforts, rather than offering any serious contribution themselves.

“But to ratify the deal, we need a global strategy. 2030 seems far off, but we have to start acting now,” the diplomat said.

The European Commission yesterday (21 April) committed to presenting two proposals to the European Council by this summer: one on the ratification of the Paris Agreement; the other on the sharing of climate mitigation efforts by 2030. “The two texts must be adopted together,” the Commission said.

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Civil society organisations fear this situation may further delay the EU’s climate action. A group of French NGOs, including WWF, have called on France to play a leading role in Europe’s climate action.

“We have bring to life the promise made by François Hollande, who pledged to join forces with all the countries that wanted to go above and beyond the commitments they had announced. Otherwise nothing will change before 2025. France, Germany and the United Kingdom, which between them represent around half of Europe’s emissions, could get together with the Scandinavian countries to increase the ambition of their commitments,” said Pascal Canfin, the head of WWF France and the former French minister of state for development.

According to Friends of the Earth, the EU’s current emissions reduction objectives would place the planet on a trajectory towards a 2°C to 2.4°C temperature increase by the end of the century, while the Paris deal committed to a 1.5°C temperature rise.

Ecofys, a sustainable energy consultancy, stressed the importance of energy efficiency as a low-hanging fruit in emissions reduction efforts. If the EU is to reach its target of cutting CO2 emissions by half by 2030, in line with the 1.5°C scenario, improvements to energy efficiency are essential.

Controversial carbon price corridor

But the level of ambition itself is not the only issue; the methods by which measures should be implemented are also highly debated. On Thursday (21 April), France hosted the launch of the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition (CPLP), which aims to set a minimum and maximum price for the exchange of carbon quotas. But during a hearing in the European Parliament on Monday (18 April), Climate Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete kept his distance from the French proposal for carbon market reform.

Paris, meanwhile, is throwing its full weight behind the idea of carbon pricing: Ségolène Royal, the French minister for ecology, assigned the task of examining the possibility of implementing such a measure to Pascal Canfin and Gérard Mestrallet, the chairman and chief executive officer of the Engie, a French energy company.

One aim of the carbon price corridor would be to address the carbon market’s lack of visibility. Repeated projections based on predictions of industrial emissions and the price of carbon have never been accurate: the price of CO2 quotas on the EU’s Emissions Trading System (ETS) has fallen from €30 to €5 per tonne, a development that was never foreseen.

This situation has led industrial emitters of CO2 to question the economic wisdom of any low-carbon investments they could make, in view of the low cost of carbon emissions.

European Commission

The Paris Agreement sets out a global action plan to keep global temperature rise this century well below 2°C and to drive efforts to limit the increase even further to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The agreement also aims to strengthen the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change.

The agreement will enter into force once it has been ratified by at least 55 parties, representing at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions. For the European Union, this will require not only a legislative procedure at EU level – involving the consent of the European Parliament – but also ratification in each of the 28 member states.

The Commission presented in March 2016 an assessment of the implications for the European Union of the Paris Agreement. The European Council in its conclusions 18 March 2016 called for the signature and timely ratification of the Paris Agreement by the member states. The Council invited the Commission to present the key remaining legislative proposals to implement the 2030 framework which underlines the EU's commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions domestically and to increase the share of renewable energies and improve energy efficiency, in line with the agreement by the European Council in October 2014.

In this context, and respecting the European Council conclusions of October 2014, the Commission will in the next 12 months present proposals for an Effort-Sharing Decision for sectors not covered by the EU Emissions Trading System and on land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF), legislation to set up a reliable and transparent climate and energy governance mechanism for the post-2020 period, and the necessary policy proposals to adapt the EU's regulatory framework in order to put energy efficiency first and to foster EU's role as a world leader in the field of renewable energy.

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