The European Union in international climate change negotiations

The European Union has been at the forefront of international climate change negotiations for nearly two decades. The EU capitalised on the leadership gap caused by the United States’ early disengagement from the UN climate negotiations and has striven to maintain its claim to environmental leadership. EU diplomacy was vital to signing up Russia and Japan to the Kyoto Protocol, effectively saving it from an early death after the US renounced its signature and the international process as a whole. However, the EU struggled to maintain its leadership role at the Copenhagen negotiations in 2009, where the US and China snubbed the EU by negotiating the Copenhagen Accord without EU input. The EU now faces the challenge of maintaining a leadership role despite the increasing complexity of international climate change negotiations and the renewed (often obstructive) participation of the US in the UN process.

Why did the EU stake a claim to climate change leadership?

The EU’s ambitious response to climate change is determined by the urgency of the problem. In short, the EU and its member states accept the science and act according to the precautionary principle, which has been codified as the cornerstone of their environmental policy.

The EU is a new kind of political organisation, a hybrid of federal and intergovernmental elements that has evolved over the last sixty years. As a result of this experience, the EU has great faith in the power of multilateralism and pursues global solutions to the problem of climate change.

Since 1992, the EU has been determined to use the combined political influence of its member states to achieve legitimacy as a powerful international actor. Playing to their strengths, climate change policy has become one of the key areas in which this ambition is pursued. The context of global climate change negotiations gave the EU an opportunity to pursue leadership. The UN negotiations were proceeding under the framework of common but differentiated responsibility – effectively, that the developed countries were to take the lead in climate change mitigation and adaptation financing before requiring sacrifices from developing countries – and the US was initially a reluctant, and then later an overtly obstructionist, participant. This left a leadership gap that the EU was able to step into.

How has the EU provided leadership?

The EU’s strategy in climate change policy involves both “leading by example” and mobilising its shared diplomatic resources to influence international negotiations. The EU has consistently adopted the most ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets and implemented the world’s first CO2 emissions trading scheme, in an attempt to demonstrate that serious emission reductions are possible without compromising economic prosperity.

The EU was the driving force behind the Kyoto Protocol. When President Bush announced that the US was pulling out in 2001, the Kyoto Protocol was widely presumed to be dead before it was even implemented. The Protocol needed the combined emissions of ratifying states to equal at least 55% of developed country emissions. The US was responsible for 36% of those emissions, and the EU only 25%. Without the US involvement, the EU undertook some sophisticated high-level diplomacy to convince Canada, Japan, and most crucially, Russia, to ratify Kyoto.

The EU’s failure at Copenhagen 2009

The 2009 UN climate change negotiations in Copenhagen was meant to provide the framework for the successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol, but instead ended without any formal agreement. The European Union was largely invisible in the two week conference, overcome with internal disunity that prevented it from taking any kind of leadership role. In part, this is the result of its recent enlargement from 15 to 27 member states which has overwhelmed the EU’s internal decision-making procedures, making it difficult for the EU to present as one unified actor in international negotiations.

The EU failure is also due to the re-emergence of the US as a key player in international climate negotiations. The Copenhagen Accord, an informal agreement crafted primarily by the US and China in back-room negotiations that excluded the European Union, was the sole outcome of the negotiations. This reflects the changing nature of international climate policy, where the need to bring China and the US together is now the central challenge.

Future Leadership?

The EU’s “leadership by example” and ambitious targets are still necessary, but are no longer a winning strategy on their own. The EU must now marshal its considerable combined influence and resources to create cross-linkages between policy areas and partake in more high-level diplomacy in order to forge a post-Kyoto agreement. This means that the EU has to learn how to present a unified front in dealing with increasingly complex negotiating dynamics and continued US pressure for a weaker agreement.

This is not an easy task for the EU – its enlarged membership makes it harder to make reactive decisions, and the US is often a divisive influence on the EU. Some of its members (particularly the UK) have a tendency to accommodate the US by partaking in side-bargaining with them, which can undermine the EU common negotiating position to the point of irrelevance.

The EU has evolved unevenly and sometimes messily, but it has shown a willingness to address its shortcomings and an ability to adapt to changing circumstances, especially when it is forced to fulfil expectations of its own making. The EU has staked much of its international legitimacy on its leadership on climate change – anything less is perceived as a failure.