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Once the driving force of climate action, the EU has fallen behind

Climate & Environment

Once the driving force of climate action, the EU has fallen behind

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon congratulates the presidents of China and the United States on ratifying the Paris Agreement.

[UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe]

The inability of the EU’s member states to agree on an effort-sharing deal could delay the ratification of the Paris Agreement until late 2017. This would see the climate deal enter into force without the world’s biggest economic bloc. EurActiv France reports.

For Scottish Conservative MEP Ian Duncan, the rapporteur on carbon market reform, enough is enough. “Climate action is not just about nice words and handshakes,” he said.

Long seen as the global leader on questions of climate change, the European Union was leapfrogged by the United States and China last Friday (2 September), with both big polluters ratifying the Paris Agreement together. It may still be some time before the EU is in a position to do the same.

“Commissioner Šefčovič said he was working with China and the United States on the application of the Paris Agreement. But this is not serious. The EU is not keeping its own house in order. There is now a gulf between rhetoric and reality,” said Duncan.

The passionate speeches of the COP21, during which the EU boasted of having formed a High Ambition Coalition with the small island states and the US have been followed by a complete inability to come to any kind of agreement between member states.

The disappointment felt by many of the EU’s partners was expressed by Tony de Brum, the climate ambassador of the Marshall Islands, on Twitter.

It is now very possible that the Paris Agreement could enter into force without the ratification of the EU, which would be a major political defeat for the bloc. For the deal to apply, it must be ratified by at least 55% of signatory countries representing 55% of global CO2 emissions.

With ratification already completed by 28 countries representing 40% of emissions, this hurdle is well within sight.

The EU's 'prisoner's dilemma' on climate action

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

If the situation became urgent, the EU could always bypass the ratification process at national level and declare itself competent to take the decision alone. While this emergency trump card may be tempting to the European executive, the political backlash from certain member states would be severe.

Ratification of the deal at EU level will in all likelihood be completed soon: the European Parliament will give its opinion in a consultative vote in mid-September, followed by the European Council in October. But this principle agreement alone is not enough.

National obstacles

The main obstacle to an EU effort sharing decision is Poland, which is still trying to negotiate subsidies for its coal-fired power stations in exchange for ratification. “But nobody wants to support the coal industry today. This is absurd,” said Duncan.

Negotiations on effort sharing, or how to cut emissions of CO2 by 40% by 2030, have stumbled on this subject. As a result, “I think it is highly unlikely that the EU will ratify the agreement before the end of the year. The Slovaks, who currently hold the rotating presidency of the EU, say it will be the second semester of 2017,” said French Green senator Ronan Dantec, expressing his disappointment at the lack of progress made on the effort sharing deal.

“Not everything is decided, notably on the phasing out of coal, and climate-sceptic governments are strong in Europe,” he added.

Brexit is another factor holding up progress on the ratification of the climate deal.

Brexit calls EU climate action into question as top MEP quits

The European Union’s plans to reform its broken carbon market have been thrown into turmoil, after the British lead MEP on the bill to revise the Emissions Trading System resigned after the UK voted to leave the bloc.

Theresa May’s government has shed its climate minister, and the subject is not necessarily a priority, even if Ian Duncan is adamant that the UK will ratify the Paris Agreement by the end of 2016.

EU to blame for the delay?

“We really must ask questions about the EU’s responsibility. The historic polluters should ratify the Paris Agreement before India. We can hardly ask India or Russia to accelerate the process,” said Célia Gautier from the NGO Climate Action Network.

And the delayed ratification could have serious consequences. “It is wasted time that could have been spent on the real issue of how to enforce the agreement,” said Gauthier.

The EU’s loss of international credibility on climate change is one problem, but the economic consequences of this backward step could be even more serious. Once the leader on renewables, the EU is stagnating.

France, for example, will fail to meet its 2020 energy objectives, particularly that of generating 23% from renewable sources. Renewables currently account for 14.9% of France’s energy supply, and progress is slow.

And with the UK’s departure, the challenge will be even greater: achieving a 40% reduction in emissions without one of the major drivers of change could prove much more difficult. Unless the United Kingdom continues to cooperate with European climate policy after Brexit, following the Norwegian example.