Paris climate deal marks rare EU victory

The European Union is getting so used to feeling under siege, it is easy to forget it can eke out a victory every now and then, and last week’s move to ratify the Paris climate change agreement is definitely a win.

After a series of recent setbacks, from Brexit to the persistent refugee crisis and the ongoing economic slump, the Paris deal is proof that EU officials still have a few tricks up their sleeves.

There were doubts about whether the ministers could pull off what is effectively a fast track approval of the sweeping agreement from last December’s United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP 21, in the French capital. Legal experts pondered the legitimacy of a decision by the EU to deposit its ratification of the accord to cut greenhouse gas emissions before it was ratified by all 28 member states.

Indeed, only seven member states have done so nationally, and both Britain and Poland raised concerns about the process. For London, it was about handing more powers to the EU, while for Warsaw, it was about protecting its coal sector. Further questions were raised about carving up emissions cuts among member states, and how Britain’s vote to leave the EU will affect quotas, but the ministers agreed on Friday to put the effort sharing off to a later date.

The news was celebrated by EU figures. “What some believed impossible is now real,” Council President Donald Tusk tweeted. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who days earlier decried the EU’s slow ratification as “ridiculous”, greeted the news as proof that, “the European Union delivers on promises made.” And EU Climate Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete hit back at suggestions that Europe was too complicated to agree quickly. “They said we had too many hoops to jump through. They said we were all talk. Today’s decision shows what Europe is all about: unity and solidarity,” he said.

The Paris agreement says countries must devise plans to check the rise in temperatures by two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and strive for 1.5˚ C if possible. Until the EU move, 62 countries out of 197 COP21 participants had ratified it (above the 55 country threshold), but they accounted for only 52 percent of global emissions, under the 55 percent required for the agreement to kick in. With the EU accounting for 12 percent of emissions, the decision unlocks the mechanism.

After the final European Parliament vote in Strasbourg on October 4, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in attendance, formal ratification is expected on October 6 through the so-called written procedure at the Council of Ministers. This paves the way for it to come into force globally on November 7, the day the COP 22 climate summit opens in Marrakech.

COP22 begins on the eve of another key date: the US elections. It is this moment, more than the Marrakesh meeting itself, that explains the rush to ratify: Donald Trump may be behind in the polls, but the election is still too close for many outsiders to risk him clinching the presidency and unpicking the deal.

Trump has long denied climate change – in 2012, he claimed the concept of global warming was created by China to make US manufacturing non-competitive – and has threatened to withdraw from the Paris deal if elected. It would be much harder if the agreement were already in force by the time he took office: countries that have joined cannot pull out for four years.

This explains why the US and China, the world’s two biggest polluters, jointly acceded to the deal during a summit in September between presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping. As for the EU, it risked losing its leadership role in climate policy if the agreement came into force without it: European officials worried about being left out from the Paris deal’s supervising body, due to formally take office in Marrakesh.

There is more work ahead. The EU is currently reviewing its emissions trading system (EU ETS) and is preparing proposals on energy efficiency, renewable energy and the design of the EU energy market, as well as decarbonising transport.

And the International Energy Agency (IEA) has just warned that the world is still on a worst case trajectory for power plant emissions: a 2°C degree climate pathway needs a global average of 100kg of CO2 per megawatt-hour from all power generation by the late 2030s, yet the current average intensity of is just over 500kg. While the average intensity of new power generation coming online in 2015 was 420kg, this is still far from where we need to be.

So while the Paris deal is good news for the EU and good news for the world, the job is far from done.

Words Leo Cendrowicz & Diederik Peereboom (Burson-Marsteller Brussels)
Photos CC/Flickr COP21

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