15th Sep 2019


Does Juncker even know what is in the Paris climate deal?

  • EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker made an appearance at the UN climate summit in Paris in 2015. However, a recent comment showed he may not have grasped the nature of what was agreed (Photo: European Commission)

The European Commission has done a great job in the fight against climate change, its outgoing president Jean-Claude Juncker said Tuesday (11 June) at an event organised by Politico.

Referring to "facts" which proved the commission took the climate threat as a "serious issue", Juncker boasted that "without the European Union this Paris climate agreement would never have been possible".

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  • The EU and 195 countries agreed in Paris to the first truly global agreement aimed at limiting climate change. (Photo: WeMeanBusiness / Iga Gozdowska)

He is probably right.

The agreement, reached by virtually all nations of the world, and the EU, in the French capital in 2015, was an unprecedented achievement.

However, Juncker then went on to say that there was no need for the EU to raise its 2030 climate targets.

"To fix new goals again and again, doesn't make sense. Let's focus on what we have decided," he said.

It showed Juncker clearly did not know the details of the Paris agreement.

In fact, it is Juncker's comment which does not "make sense".

Fixing new climate goals "again and again" is actually a crucial feature of the deal, which was made possible by a bottom-up approach.


Each country sets its own greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, in plans called 'nationally determined contributions' (NDCs).

It was the only way to have sovereign countries agree to the process.

But to prevent global average temperature from rising by a certain degree, there is only a finite amount of carbon dioxide and related gases that can be emitted extra by human activities.

The negotiators who wrote the text realised that letting countries determine their own targets, gives no guarantee that the aggregate results add up to what is needed to prevent dramatic shifts in the earth's climate.

It is like going out for dinner with a group of friends, agreeing that everyone will bring the money they can spare - but without knowing for sure there will be enough to cover the bill.

The treaty therefore said that countries (called 'parties' in UN lingo) should update their NDC every five years - and that the only way was up.

"Each party's successive nationally determined contribution will represent a progression beyond the party's then current nationally determined contribution and reflect its highest possible ambition," the text said.

It also specified that countries were free to submit more ambitious NDCs more often than every five years.

2023 stocktaking

The parties also agreed in 2015 that they would take stock of progress in 2023.

"The outcome of the global stocktake shall inform parties in updating and enhancing, in a nationally determined manner, their actions and support in accordance with the relevant provisions of this agreement, as well as in enhancing international cooperation for climate action."

This very careful diplomatic language basically means: we expect that enough countries will increase ambition if we find out more collective action is needed, accepting that no one can be forced to do it.

Moreover, the Paris signatories not only reaffirmed a previously established aim of limiting global warming to "well below 2C", compared to the average temperature from before the industrial revolution.

The world's countries, and the EU, also committed to "pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels".

A report by the UN's climate scientists published last October already showed how the NDCs submitted ahead of Paris were not enough to stay below the 1.5C threshold.

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres has therefore invited the world's leaders to a climate change summit in New York this September.

And Guterres asked them to come "with concrete, realistic plans to enhance their nationally determined contributions by 2020".

In other words, fixing new climate goals not only does "make sense", it was part of the plan all along.

West v East

Of course, it is understandable why Juncker would want to downplay expectations.

The current EU climate goals for 2030 were agreed at a difficult summit in October 2014, which laid bare strong divisions between richer and poorer member states, i.e. West v East.

Those EU targets include reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 percent compared to 1990 levels.

But that target was achieved with the global aim of staying below 2C. It will not be enough to stay below 1.5C.

In fact, the official conclusions adopted at the 2014 summit include an opening for higher ambition - although that was not the original purpose.

With the failure of the climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009 in mind, several eastern EU member states wanted to include a "review clause".

This clause would allow the EU to opt for easier targets if other countries in the world did not sign up to the Paris agreement.

But the commitment by EU leaders to "keep all the elements of the framework under review" can now also be read as a possibility to increase, rather than lower, EU climate ambition.

Last month, Belgium, Denmark, France, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden said in a statement that the EU "must make ambitious announcements" during the UN summit in New York.

This announcement should "preferably [be] on setting a target for the EU to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 at the latest, and on the principle of enhancing the ambition of its current NDC by 2020".

They said that EU leaders meeting at next week's summit "should give clear political direction on this".

An EU source told EUobserver that the climate change debate at the EU summit would not be about specific targets.

A draft version of the conclusions, seen by this website, said that leaders would emphasise "the importance" of the NY summit "for stepping up global climate action so as to achieve the objectives of the Paris agreement".

However, it made no mention of an increase in 2030 targets.

That can still change, depending on how the debate between the EU's heads of state and government plays out.

Juncker, who as a member of the European Council will be present, may want to catch up on reading the Paris agreement before he heads to the council building next Thursday.

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