European Union officials are making a huge fuss over quickly ratifying the Paris climate agreement, warning the bloc could be sidelined if the deal enters into force without it.
On Wednesday, 31 countries delivered their ratifications during a special United Nations climate event in New York — further increasing pressure on the EU.
But while falling behind may be embarrassing for Brussels, neither the climate nor the deal’s goals are likely to suffer as a consequence of a lagging EU, said climate policy experts.
“Early ratification of the Paris agreement is a needed but rather small step and what really matters for the climate is the implementation,” said Wendel Trio, director of the NGO group Climate Action Network Europe. Most countries’ climate commitments under the deal only take effect after 2020. “But it is an image problem.”
The Paris agreement was originally expected to take several years to be ratified — it goes into effect once it is approved by at least 55 countries responsible for 55 percent of the world’s emissions.
But with China and the U.S. joining this month, other emerging powers like Brazil following suit, and Wednesday’s rush of ratifications, there is a growing conviction it could take effect this year — the tally is now at 60 countries and 48 percent of emissions.
If the pace gets even faster, the pact could pass the ratification threshold by October 7. If that happens, the first formal meeting of governments that have joined could happen during the COP22 climate summit in Morocco, starting on November 7. That raises EU worries that the bloc won’t have a seat at the table.
The problem for the EU is that it represents 28 countries, all of which normally would have to ratify the agreement, which also has to get the nod from the European Parliament and the European Council. There is no way that can happen this year.
That’s prompted EU officials to ramp up ratification pressure to rescue the bloc’s climate reputation.
“Dragging our feet on ratification undermines our credibility,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said during last week’s State of the Union speech. The EU played a crucial role during December’s Paris climate summit, so not being in the front ranks of ratifying nations “makes us look ridiculous,” he said.
But the view from outside the European Union is considerably less alarmist.
“The EU and its member states were some of our strongest partners in reaching a deal in Paris, and we know they’ve been working hard to join the agreement as quickly as possible,” an Obama administration official said in an email. “We have total confidence in their continued commitment to join the agreement once they’ve gone through their domestic process.”
Jo Tyndall, the co-chair of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement, which oversees negotiations following the deal, agreed. It’s not as if the EU is alone, other countries also face domestic political processes that make it hard to ratify this year, she told POLITICO.
Efforts are also underway to make sure countries that haven’t ratified the deal once it comes into force won’t be excluded from talks to work out the pact’s rules.
There is still talk about “how do you balance the need and the desire to be inclusive about the negotiating process so that those who’ve not been able to ratify in time aren’t excluded, but at the same time make sure there are incentives to actually join up,” Tyndall said.
Despite those assurances, an EU official said he was still worried about “sitting in the second row” during any meeting of formal parties to the deal.
Environmental shuttle diplomacy
Faced with its laborious ratification process, the EU is looking for a shortcut.
The idea would be to speed up the process by completing EU-level ratification before members do so separately. Environment ministers are due to meet for an extraordinary session on September 30 to discuss this approach. Meanwhile, Miguel Arias Cañete, the climate action and energy commissioner, is working the phones with Germany, France, Poland, Italy and the U.K. — countries considered to be crucial in fast-tracking the process, according to an EU source.
“We are in the spotlight and our reputation is at stake,” Arias Cañete told the European Parliament this month.
The Slovak presidency hopes to get member countries to approve a faster ratification by October 7. If that happens, the number of EU countries and their emissions could be enough to push the agreement over the threshold needed for it to enter into force. That would be a PR coup for Brussels.
But in the end, as climate negotiators pointed out, the goal of the agreement is less about public perceptions, and more about keeping global warming under control. And there, the EU “is well ahead of the curve,” said Elina Bardram, the bloc’s climate negotiator.
Andrew Restuccia contributed reporting.
This article has been updated with new information.