The news that the Holy See will be joining the Paris Agreement indicates that the Vatican will be stepping up its climate diplomacy. The Holy See has announced that, on 6 July, its Permanent Observer at the United Nations ‘deposited before the Secretary-General of the United Nations the Instrument with which the Holy See, in the name and on behalf of Vatican City State, accesses to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’. The announcement continued that the Holy See would be acceding to the Paris Agreement as soon as that treaty’s ‘legal requirements’ allow.
The Conference of Parties (COP) to the Convention adopted the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, setting individual greenhouse gas emissions targets for developed countries. However, the United States never ratified it, other major developed States refused to accept 2020 targets and the protocol never addressed the massive growth in emissions from developing countries. In 2015, the COP charted a new course by adopting the Paris Agreement, which requires all countries to nominate progressively stronger Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The Agreement entered into force in 2016.
Membership of the climate treaties is open only to sovereign States and ‘regional economic integration organizations’ (currently, the European Union). The Holy See is eligible by virtue of the complex but largely uncontested status it has enjoyed in international law since its agreement of the 1929 Lateran Treaty with Italy. The late International Court of Justice judge James Crawford concluded that ‘it is clear that the Vatican City is a State in international law, despite its size and special circumstances’, while the Holy See is ‘both an international legal person in its own right and the government of a State’ (i.e. Vatican City). Holy See membership of the climate treaties ‘on behalf of’ the territorial unit of Vatican City is consistent with this interpretation.
Article 22 of the Convention provides that it is open for ‘ratification, acceptance, approval or accession by States and by regional economic integration organizations’. The Convention enters force in respect of an acceding State ninety days after the deposit of its instrument of accession (Article 23). This would make the Holy See subject to the Convention’s provisions – with the right to fully participate in its decision-making – on 4 October.
Membership of the Convention is a necessary precondition for accession to the Paris Agreement, which can be joined by ‘States and regional economic integration organizations that are Parties to the Convention’ (Article 20). The Agreement enters force for an acceding Party thirty days after deposit of accession instrument. This means that the earliest date on which the Holy See can become party to the Paris Agreement is 3 November.
‘With a transparently pro-poor agenda, substantial diplomatic and expert networks and no conventional ‘national interest’ to speak of, the Holy See could play a constructive role in identifying landing zones for agreement.’
The next meeting of the Conference of Parties – COP27 – is scheduled to begin on 6 November, hosted by Egypt in Sharm El-Sheikh. According to the accession schedules in the two treaties, the Holy See would go to the COP as a Party to the Convention and possibly also to the Paris Agreement. If the Holy See is not yet party to the Paris Agreement, its status as a Convention Party would entitle it to participate as an observer in meetings of Paris Agreement Parties without participating in decision-making.
The Holy See has long participated in UNFCCC meetings as a lone ‘observer State’. At the most recent COP in Glasgow, it sent a delegation of seven led by the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin. In contrast to observer status, Party status will bring full rights of participation as well as obligations under the treaties.
As a Party to the Paris Agreement, the Holy See will be obliged to ‘prepare, communicate and maintain successive’ NDCs that include climate mitigation targets. It will be able to participate in market and non-market ‘voluntary cooperation’ with other Parties. As a member ‘on behalf of’ a territory in Western Europe, the Holy See will presumably be considered a developed Party, meaning it would share in the commitment of developed Parties to provide support to developing countries.
It is unclear exactly how the Holy See intends to use its membership of the Convention and Paris Agreement. The announcement speaks generally of intending ‘to contribute and to give its moral support to the efforts of all States to cooperate, in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in an effective and appropriate response to the challenges posed by climate change to humanity and to our common home’.
One question is whether the Holy See will send negotiators to participate directly in negotiations between Parties. Most of the real work of crafting consensus outcomes is done in meetings, rather oddly referred to as ‘informal informals’, which are open only to Parties. With a transparently pro-poor agenda, substantial diplomatic and expert networks and no conventional ‘national interest’ to speak of, the Holy See could play a constructive role in identifying landing zones for agreement (mindful of its Lateran Treaty commitment to ‘remain extraneous to all temporal disputes between nations’).
Even if the Holy See does not participate actively in negotiations, its right to sit in behind-closed-doors meetings is likely to yield valuable information for its global work on climate.
The Holy See signing up to the Climate Convention and the Paris Agreement is, in short, a welcome move. The Holy See is using its unique status in international law to make both a symbolic and a practical commitment to action on the worsening climate crisis.