After months of foot-dragging, the European Union's Council of Ministers voted unanimously on Friday to fast-track EU approval of the Paris climate agreement. The European Parliament is expected to vote to ratify the agreement on Tuesday, which would put the Paris deal into force in early November, before the next global climate conference in Morocco.
"This proves that Europe can still be a leader in climate policy even though there was much doubt about this lately," said Reimund Schwarze, a climate policy expert with the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany. "There was some concern that the China-U.S. axis would start running the climate policy machine.
"Leadership in climate is part of the vision for the future of Europe."
So far, 61 countries, representing almost 48 percent of global emissions, have ratified the Paris agreement. The EU's 28 member states produce about 10 percent of the world's greenhouse gas pollution. Their vote would push the emissions reduction commitments past the threshold necessary to send the Paris agreement into force early, much faster than the goal of 2020 set during last year's Paris conference. It needs at least 55 countries, representing at least 55 percent of global emissions.
The United Nations has said it hopes entry into force would spur other signatories to ratify as soon as possible, "to ensure universal participation in its implementation." Once in force, the ambitious agreement could stimulate immediate action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, which is seen as critical to reaching the goal of capping global warming at less than 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level.
The treaty's ultimate objective is no net additions of greenhouse gases sometime in the second half of this century, and the sooner the better.
The EU has long been a leader in climate policy, with a goal of cutting emissions 40 percent by 2030. Individual European countries have made dramatic progress in shifting away from fossil fuels. Germany, which gets about 30 percent of its electricity from renewables, is a model for the shift to clean energy in industrialized countries. Tiny Denmark is a leader in offshore wind energy and the Netherlands and Norway have recently announced plans to phase out gasoline-powered cars by 2025.
But the rise of right-wing nationalist parties across the EU in the past year, largely in response to immigration and terrorism, has threatened the continent's climate consensus. The turmoil culminated in Britain's decision to leave the EU. A block of eastern European countries, led by Poland, is also seeking concessions on climate policy, specifically how its coal use will be accounted for when Europe updates its emissions trading policy in 2017.
EU ratification would give Europe a major role in how the Paris deal will be implemented, said Jonathan Goventa, London director of E3G, a European climate and energy think tank.
"There are two aspects to this: pride and demonstrating commitment to the Paris agreement," Goventa said. "And it's partly about being at the table when the parties start meeting to design the rules of how the Paris agreement will be implemented. Our worry is that the EU will paint itself into a corner."
The pace of ratification and implementation also has implications for European business, he said.
"The EU was an early economic leader in terms of developing clean energy technologies, but it's beginning to lose some of that edge." he said. "Already, the level of clean energy investments has been declining, whereas countries like China are developing very explicit strategies to dominate the world clean energy market."
The unanimous vote could also give European citizens a renewed sense of unity, said Philippa Nuttall Jones, communications manager with the European Environmental Bureau, an organization representing 150 environmental groups with 15 million members.
"We've always sold ourselves as a leader. That's what kept the momentum going, but there's a lack of confidence in Europe at the moment," she said.
Meanwhile, India, responsible for 7 percent of global emissions, is also expected to ratify the agreement in early October, giving even more momentum before the conference in Morocco.
Update on October 2, 2016: India officially turned over its instruments for ratification to the United Nations on Sunday, October 2.