Environment

The EU in Climate Negotiations: Losing the Lead

On the 20th of September, we witnessed with excitement the greatest international mobilisation against climate change ever held. And while changes appear to be occurring, we’re still waiting for a proper international agreement on climate change to be reached…

Taking Responsibility

At the end of next year the Conference of the Parties, known as COP21, will take place in Paris, in the framework of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change. At this Conference, commitments will be sought through a binding international agreement. The aim is, firstly, to ensure that every country pursues a new target in reducing its greenhouse gases emissions, and secondly, to establish new assistance mechanisms for those countries which are less capable of adapting to climate change effects, in order to enable them to face the consequences of climate change without excessive costs to their economies. Therefore, the Conference purports to be an important step forward in the fight against climate change. And this is not only because of its aims, but also due the fact that this time it might be possible to include, eventually, the entire world.

The Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997 and in force since 2008, established a target to be attained between 2008 and 2012: to reduce 5% of greenhouse gases emissions by reference to the year 1990 (base-year for emissions calculation). However, it was done without the ratification of the United States and was subsequently abandoned by Canada. This protocol, the effects of which were supposed to be evident by the end of 2012, had to be postponed until 2020 in the Conference of Qatar (COP18, 2012) as it was impossible to reach a new legally binding agreement at the Copenhagen Conference in 2009, the purpose of which was to achieve a new more ambitious binding agreement that would replace Kyoto.

Unlike in the Copenhagen Summit, where the predisposition to reach a binding agreement was non-existent and all the work was left to the very last moment, in Paris the situation seems to have improved.

The lack of agreement in the Conference of Copenhagen was a huge missed opportunity and an important setback for the European Union. Partly due to the fact that the meeting was not well prepared and it was carried out in the middle of the financial crisis, a moment when talking about tackling climate change was synonymous with additional expenditure and being a brake on the economy. But also because this time the EU lacked the leadership it had displayed during the previous decades. Indeed, all the leadership that the EU had succeeded in demonstrating in previous years disappeared in Copenhagen due to a large institutional incoherence and internal division. Undoubtedly, the lack of ambition the EU brought to the climate change summit in Copenhagen was also a decisive factor in its loss of its leading role.

Internal Tools With Global Impacts

Before losing its leadership role, the EU was the global Green standard-setter. In 2009, the EU adopted an emissions reduction target called “Europe 2020 strategy”, which involves, among other goals, a target for greenhouse gas emissions to be 20% lower than in 1990, for 20% of energy consumption to come from renewable sources, and a 20% increase in energy efficiency. And five years before the deadline expires, the targets proposed are almost met.

Furthermore, the EU has also succeeded in implementing internal measures which impact actors outside the EU. For example, the so called “Emission Trading System”, which is the key tool in fighting climate change by reducing industrial CO2 emission in the EU, also includes binding measures for all the international aviation operators landing or departing in the EU. The flight operators have to count the emissions of the whole flight, and hence also the flight outside the EU, with the possibility for the Member States of the EU to take enforcement actions if an operator does not surrender the corresponding greenhouse gas allowances. This, of course, brought major international political protest and judicial conflicts, especially from American, Indian and Chinese aviation companies, which are also obliged to reduce their emissions despite not being European companies.

This ability to bind third countries and actors to reduce their emissions of CO2 through internal measures is, without a doubt, a great step forward in the globalisation of the climate problem. This was possible, in part, thanks to the inclusion in the Lisbon Treaty of the objective to achieve a “high level of environmental protection”, with special emphasis in the fight against climate change. It goes without saying that this “constitutionalisation” of the problem was largely a victory of the green movement in Europe. Such measures, of course, have not come without criticism, particularly regarding their lack of ambition and the effectiveness of the Emission Trading System, especially considering that the mechanisms have not functioned as expected and that some clauses were temporarily suspended.

While these criticisms are more than justified and should be shared, what also appears certain is that thanks to the fact that there was political will to set specific targets and deadlines, it was possible to reach certain agreements by using internal tools. This is relevant since as important as getting ambitious aims is to use the appropriate tools to achieve them.

This ability to bind third countries and actors to reduce their emissions of CO2 through internal measures is, without a doubt, a great step forward in the globalisation of the climate problem.

Finding the Political Will to Lead

Whether we consider the “European 2020 strategy” sufficiently ambitious or not, at that moment it was the most ambitious unilateral offer on the table with the aim of reducing greenhouse emissions by 2020, while other actors had not even talked about what they were going to do. This political will to reach an agreement allowed the EU to gain a certain reputation as a leader in the international arena. Thus, whether the EU is currently a leader or not, it is a fact that often being perceived as a leader by others can be enough to actually become one. Some countries, such as Japan, consider that there is a large correspondence between what the EU says and what it does. Other countries, such as China, India and Indonesia, perceive the EU as a leader since its capacity to establish and implement internal concrete measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions serves as an example and inspiration to others, especially to other developed countries. It would be therefore unfair to completely deny the EU’s influence on climate matters.

Nevertheless, it would not be an exaggeration to characterise the EU’s style of leadership as “soft” and/or “weak” in its strategy. On the one hand, the EU does not appear to possess enough political and economic power to compel other countries to tackle climate change. On the other hand, having internal measures that could set an example for others does not seem to have a real impact in either developed or developing countries. Moreover, large changes in environmental and climate matters which are taking place, especially in the Latin American continent (such as the “Ley de la Madre Tierra” (Law of the Mother Earth) in Bolivia or the “Legislación para el Buen Vivir” (Legislation for Good Living) in Ecuador, follow a completely different doctrinal and ideological approach to the one that prevails in the Old Continent.

Furthermore, if we add to this characterisation of “soft” leadership the already mentioned failure of the EU in the Copenhagen Summit and its lack of ambition in the recent targets for 2030, it does not seem possible for the EU to play a decisive pro-active part in the Conference of the Parties that will take place in Paris next year. With regards to the replacement of the “European 2020 Strategy”, in early 2014 the European Commission had set the target of reducing 40% of the EU emissions and to increase to 27% the share of renewable energies by 2030. However, these targets run the risk of being worthless if the commitments are not translated into concrete and precise obligations for the Member States, given that no enforcement actions can be taken. The refusal of the United Kingdom and Poland to accept specific targets “imposed by the EU” played a crucial role in this lack of agreement, which illustrate the difficulties in creating internal consensus on climate matters.

With this in mind, it would not be surprising if the EU went to the negotiations without greatly changing its role of “soft” leader. But unlike in the Copenhagen Summit, where the predisposition to reach a binding agreement was non-existent and all the work was left to the very last moment, in Paris the situation seems to have improved.

Firstly, the EU has the necessary will to demonstrate that it has not given up on its aspiration to lead the climate policies and that it is necessary to put the climate matters at the forefront of the political agenda.

Secondly, on this occasion all the countries seem theoretically predisposed to reach a binding international agreement. While it is true that the United States is reluctant to reach a binding International Treaty because of the usual hostility of its Senate to any imposed external measure, it is widely recognised that it is necessary to move forward and that every country must adopt further internal actions and obligations, including penalties and sanctions for noncompliance.

And lastly, before the Paris Summit, in December 2014 the Conference of the Parties is taking place place in Lima, Peru (COP20), which was intended to act as a roadmap for COP21. The aims of Lima are to propose a draft which should work as a global goal for all international actors and to provide an appropriate legal framework to ensure the specific objectives are met, establishing its own monitoring and review mechanisms. It remains now only to observe and demand, from civil society, that there be a high degree of consensus in Lima prior to the future agreement of Paris.

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