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23 June 2016 11:56

Explainer: When will the European Union ratify the Paris Agreement?

Sophie Yeo


Sophie Yeo

23.06.2016 | 11:56am
EU policyExplainer: When will the European Union ratify the Paris Agreement?

Update 4/10/16 — The EU has ratified the Paris Agreement, after member states agreed to a fast-tracked process. In Parliament today, MEPs voted to ratify the agreement by a majority of 610 to 38, with 31 abstentions. The European ratification will push the Paris Agreement into force, once the necessary documents have been deposited at the UN. 

The UN secured a new climate change agreement in Paris at the end of last year, with the consensus of all its 196 parties. Since then, 177 parties have signed the deal.

The next job is to get all 197 (Palestine has since joined) to ratify it. This means that each country has to go through its domestic procedure to formally approve the agreement, then drop off its paperwork into a UN depository.

Carbon Brief has already explained the broad process of ratification. Essentially, the hard-won deal cannot come into force until at least 55 countries, representing 55% of the world’s emissions, have take the necessary steps at home to formally accept it.

Among these 197 parties is the EU and its (currently) 28 individual member states. Together, they make up 12% of global emissions, so their contribution is obviously an important one. The EU’s ratification process is also lengthier and much more complicated.

Why does the EU need to ratify?

Both the EU and its member states are responsible for ratifying the Paris Agreement and will need to do so if they want to continue to have a voice in the UN climate negotiations — which they have emphatically said they do.

This is because the EU is a party to the UNFCCC in its own right, and is responsible for overseeing certain parts of its commitments under the Paris Agreement. Other elements are the responsibility of member states.

The EU and its member states acted together to negotiate the UN climate deal. At UN meetings they speak with one voice and are bound by the same target — an emissions reduction of “at least 40%” by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.

The EU and its member states have promised to act jointly in fulfilling this commitment. It even has policies in place to facilitate this joint effort, including its emissions trading scheme.

Member states

Member states do not need to ratify the Paris Agreement for the EU to complete its own ratification procedure.

However, there is a strong preference across the board that the EU and its 28 member states present a united front by depositing their instruments of ratification at the same time.

A document by the EU’s Legal Service, not publicly available but seen by Carbon Brief, sets out the case for joint ratification.

It says that if the EU deposits its instrument of ratification ahead of the member states then there is a risk that it could be fulfilling obligations that strictly belong to the individual countries. The reverse is also true — if member states ratify ahead of the EU, they could be stepping on the toes of the EU.

There is also a “requirement of unity in the international representation of the Union”, the document says. The EU is obliged to demonstrate this unity in all stages of the Paris Agreement.

Given these risks and principles, the EU and member states should deposit their formal ratification papers together, the EU’s lawyers have concluded. This task can obviously only be completed once all member states have ratified the deal at home.

In a meeting on Monday of the EU’s Environment Council, which consists of environment ministers, many countries supported this approach. The UK, for instance, stressed that the EU and member states should deposit their ratification documents in “a collective and coordinated fashion”.

EU procedure

The EU is working through its own ratification procedure. For the EU to ratify the Paris Agreement, it needs to pass through three institutions: the Commission, Parliament and Environment Council, which consists of environment ministers.

In June, the Commission released a proposal for a Council Decision, which starts the ratification of the agreement on behalf of the EU. This decision will be adopted by the Environment Council and the European Parliament must give its consent. 

While the timeline of the Environment Council is uncertain, the European Parliament has already said that it is in favour of early ratification, and has appointed MEP Giovanni La Via, chair of the Environment Committee, to ensure rapid progress in Parliament. “So the ball is now really in the Council’s court,” Green MEP Bas Eickhout tells Carbon Brief.

The Parliament’s Environment Committee is likely to prepare the Parliament’s position in autumn 2016, after which the Environment Council will put it to vote if the Slovakians, who will hold the six-month rotating presidency, put it on the agenda. It must adopt the decision by a qualified majority.

Following the Environment Council’s adoption, the entire European Parliament must adopt the decision in a plenary session. This process could be completed any time after the adoption of the Council.

In the conclusions to its meeting in March, the European Council, which consists of heads of state and government, affirmed that it wanted to ratify the agreement “as soon as possible and on time so as to be Parties as of its entry into force”. The Environment Council has also already added its voice to the call for early ratification, releasing a statement that encouraged this to take place “as soon as possible”.

When could it happen?

At Monday’s Environment Council meeting, many countries expressed the desire for a quick ratification of the Paris Agreement.

Ségolène Royal, who currently presides over the UN climate talks, as well as being French environment minister, occupies the upper tier of optimism. She told the Environment Council that the EU could ratify the Paris Agreement in time for the next annual meeting of the UN climate talks (COP22), which will take place in Morocco in November.

In reality, it is difficult to say exactly when the EU will complete its ratification process. Many member states have said that they can’t ratify until 2017. This would delay when the EU can finalise the process — as long as the EU decides it wants to deposit its ratification decision in unison with all its members, the bloc can only move as quickly as its slowest state.

Each member state has its own domestic process in place to ratify the Paris Agreement. “These processes are diverse and for some member states quicker than for others,” said Miguel Arias Cañete, the EU’s commissioner for climate change, on Monday.

France and Hungary, for instance, have already ratified the agreement in their home parliaments, and are ready to deposit as soon as their cohorts across Europe and in Brussels complete the process. In the UK, the process typically takes two to three months.

Many member states have already initiated the process of ratifying the agreement. Others say they want the details of the EU’s 2030 climate target ironed about before they start, or at least conclude, their domestic procedures.

In particular, some want to see the results of the effort-sharing decision. This will assign each member state with a 2030 target as part of the EU’s overall “at least 40%” goal, with some having to do more than others. The Commission will set out its proposals on 20 July.

For instance, the UK has said Parliament is more likely to ask questions of ratification if details of its individual target are unavailable.

These state level targets are more than just a formality. The Paris Agreement says that, even when states are acting jointly, they must notify the UN of the emission level allocated individually to each country. It is then the individual country that is responsible for its own target.

What if it doesn’t happen before entry into force?

Those seeking to downplay the significance of the Paris Agreement have drawn attention to the EU’s complicated ratification process. According to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a climate sceptic lobby group: “The EU process of securing unanimity between 28 member states is likely to mean a significant delay to European ratification.”

But this is overstating the case. While it is true that the process is complicated, and that the 28 domestic procedures may take some time, each of the EU institutions and many member states have straightforwardly stated their enthusiasm to ratify as soon as possible. Unanimity is also a preference, rather than a legal requirement, of EU ratification.

Almost every member state is either in the process of ratifying the agreement, or is in the process of preparing the documents for the process to begin, with a view to completing it as soon as possible. Even Poland, which has dragged its feet on ratifying past agreements, has signalled its willingness to ratify this time round.

This makes sense. The EU and its member states have already adopted and signed the agreement, which obliges them to obey the spirit of the deal, according to the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. There is more to lose than to gain by abandoning it at this stage — namely, their credibility on climate change, and their seat at the table when it comes to working out the details of the agreement.

Even so, a slow EU process would not spell disaster for either the Paris Agreement or the EU itself.

China and the US have both pledged to ratify the Paris Agreement this year, which means that the deal has a good chance of crossing the 55/55 threshold and coming into force swiftly, possibly before the EU has managed to get its own affairs in order. A tool developed by the World Resources Institute shows how the world could meet this requirement without the EU.

And if the deal comes into force before the EU has ratified, the bloc does not automatically lose its seat at the negotiating table.

The presidencies of COP21 and COP22 are currently consulting on how to ensure that “no Party should be disadvantaged or excluded from the collective development of the rulebook of the Paris Agreement simply because it is still in the process of joining the Agreement.”

For instance, in the case of an early entry into force, work could continue for another year under the oversight of all parties, rather than of just the nations that are party to the Paris Agreement.

Main image: The Hemicycle of the European Parliament in Strasbourg during a plenary session in 2014.
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