Commentary

Europe is not alone

By

Photo European flags flying in front of the Berlaymont

Cynics claim that the EU has failed in its attempt to achieve a worldwide climate policy and is only hurting its own economy by insisting on highly ambitious CO2 emission reduction targets. But this is a far too simplistic view of how the world works, argues Liz Gallagher of E3G. According to Gallagher, Europe has achieved much more than most observers realise. Countries across the world are increasingly modelling their policies on the EU example. But European policy could be even more effective if the EU adopts a more strategic approach to its international climate efforts.

For Europeans, de-motivated by the Eurozone crisis and lacking confidence of Europe’s role in global affairs, it is easy to overlook and undervalue the international impacts of Europe’s climate action. Indeed there is an increasingly vocal minority inside Europe who claim that Europe’s leadership on climate has resulted in nothing, and we should no longer be setting the global benchmark in ambition.

Poland is characteristic of these sceptics. Polish Environment Minister Korolec has been quoted as saying “There is a club of big emitters who very much enjoy the free ride on Europe’s back[1]”. Poland’s opposition to European ambition on climate is no secret, despite acting as hosts to this year’s international climate negotiations. Poland believes its national interest lies in a high carbon future, given its reliance upon coal. But this perception is short-sighted and should not be mistaken for a globally prevalent political outlook on climate change.

What the critics of EU climate policy fail to see is that diplomacy in a multi-polar world is complex. Emerging powers and more established ones navigate an array of priorities and politics. Even for the most experienced observers of international affairs, unravelling the cause and effect of diplomatic interventions is challenging. The world doesn’t operate on ‘grand bargains’ any longer and influence comes in all shapes and forms, hard to detect given the delicate reciprocity between national actions and international agreements.

If we look beyond the headlines, it is clear that Europe is not going it alone on climate policy and that European leadership has given climate action significant leverage internationally.

Others are acting

There is plenty of evidence to show that other countries are also taking serious action to fight climate change and become less reliant on fossil fuels. One significant example is China. Modelled on the European experience, China has recently launched the first of seven pilot Emissions Trading Schemes (ETS), which covers four provinces and cities, about 20% of China’s emissions and 26% of its GDP. After successful pilots China is also carrying out 36 low carbon cities projects[2]. More recently, in addition to many other policies in their 12th Five Year Plan, China has released a plan to cap coal consumptions to below 65% of its total primary energy use by 2017[3]. In short, China is making structural choices towards energy transition. It was recently designated by the Climate Institute in Australia as among the top three countries in the world most ‘prepared for the low carbon economy of the future’ (after France and Japan)[4].

Even the US, often considered one of the most wayward countries in relation to climate is shifting its position. Hurricane Sandy marked a step change in the US narrative on climate. The New York Times pointed out that President Obama devoted eight sentences to the issue in his second inaugural speech, more than to any other specific topic[5]. The country that has spent so long fighting the evidence base is now convinced and leading in its understanding of climate risk, with its security community leading the charge. A recent state-wide survey[6] of Californians, Coloradans, Ohioans, and Texans find that majorities in each state say global warming is happening, demonstrating an emerging consensus between blue and red states, resulting from the observable impacts of climate change in the US. This has spurred President Obama to announce deadlines for the Environmental Protection Agency to cut 2.2 billion tons of CO2 from existing power plants each year. This essentially rules out new coal-fired power plants which represent one third of US greenhouse gas emissions.

Action is also being taken beyond the executive. Many multinational companies are taking decisive action to reduce their emissions. Unilever, one of the world’s largest multinational consumer companies has agreed to halve the greenhouse gas impact of its products across their lifecycles by 2020[7]. New international initiatives are also emerging. For example, the C40 Climate Cities Leadership Group, which represents 58 cities and 18% of global GDP, corresponding to 1 in 12 people worldwide, has committed to addressing climate change through nearly 5,000 actions[8]. Earlier this year, the GLOBE Climate Legislators Initiative issued a report which concluded that 32 of 33 major economies have progressed or are progressing with significant climate/energy related legislation.

Securing political traction from European actions

While all these efforts may not be sufficient to deliver the transformation required to avoid dangerous climate change, it is clear that Europe is not alone in its endeavour to decarbonise. And Europe’s leadership has secured political traction with other countries, despite the claims of a small minority of critics who are not able to unravel cause and effect and who fail to adequately interpret Europe’s latent power. Europe has an impressive array of assets at its disposal which enable it to influence the global economy and geopolitics.

The EU is still the world’s largest market and biggest trading area. With significant purchasing power from a population of over 500 million, it wields considerable economic and diplomatic influence. Europe not only acts as a consumer, but also as policy innovator. Europe’s ability to pioneer and act as a pathfinder on policies has served to act as a global benchmark for many low carbon policies. For example, EU standards for appliances, chemical pollution and waste control are increasingly deployed in both advanced and emerging economies. A recent UN report on international fuel economy standards demonstrated that Europe’s lead on fuel economy standards is setting the global agenda toward global standards converging by 2020[9]. And whilst deep scepticism remains about the role of the ETS inside Europe, it’s being replicated in other countries, notably in China, with high expectations.

Europe is in a period of transition – reframing leadership in a new geopolitical context is challenging. Leadership in a multi-polar world requires more emphasis on building strategic alliances. Europe proved its ability to initiate these alliances at the UN climate conference (COP17) in Durban in 2011. The ambitious outcome of Durban to agree a legally binding outcome in 2015 was thanks to an alignment between several groups of countries in the final days of the conference. The core of this was the collaboration of Europe with vulnerable countries to push for a strong legal outcome for the future 2020 regime and more ambitious action before 2020. In the last few days, Europe worked publically with the group of developing countries that were most vocal about their support for a legally binding agreement. This joint effort had a strong impact upon how those outside of the ‘climate bubble’ viewed the negotiations as well as on securing an ambitious outcome. It became evident that a majority of the world’s countries had come together to push for a legally binding agreement in 2015.

Leadership doesn’t always result in getting everything you want

Until recently opponents of European ambition criticised the EU for its unilateral decision to develop a regional emissions trading scheme in the aviation sector.  The EU’s scheme was strongly opposed by the likes of Russia, the US and India. But the EU took unilateral action due to lethargic negotiations (supported by Russia, the US and India among others) under the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).  In designing its regional scheme, the EU incentivised more ambition from others by including exemptions for those undertaking ‘equivalent’ action i.e. doing something to reduce emissions from aviation, thereby cementing the case for a global aviation agreement. Europe’s provocative policy helped to shift countries and industries beyond their comfort zones. Finally, last week agreement was reached within the ICAO on developing a universal scheme.  Although Europe will have to temper its regional scheme, ICAO will develop a universal approach, so in the end the risks Europe took paid off.

Perhaps Europe can take heart from one of the best quotes from the West Wing that states “If they’re shooting at you, you know you’re doing something right!” But Europe is also playing a longer game; having secured a process to develop a universal scheme. Leadership doesn’t always result in getting everything you want, and this is a case in point.

Europe’s strategic interest in managing climate risk

What the critics also fail to see is that, although altruism has dominated Europe’s rationale for acting on climate, Europe also has a strategic interest in securing global climate action, since this will help secure a stable climate within its own boundaries. PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC), not normally known to exaggerate, cites climate change as the ‘mother of all risks’[10]. Failing to take significant action could cost up to €65 billion annually[11] . Economic damage from the devastating floods in Germany this year, where flood waters reached over 42 feet, is estimated at some €12 billion[12].

In a multi-polar world, Europe needs a rules based system to stabilise climate risk, to manage free-riding. This strategic interest is the driver for European engagement in multilateral agreements. Its leadership role at Kyoto, Copenhagen and Durban secured positive outcomes in addressing climate change, providing momentum and leverage towards greater climate action.

Whilst Europe’s basic premise for influencing international affairs through leadership has already provided significant dividends, it could get more bang for its buck. To get more out of its international efforts, Europe needs to articulate why avoid dangerous climate change matters to its national interest in order to engage with sincerity with its international partners.  It must make it clear that its international climate action is grounded in solid European interests. That will ultimately make it more convincing to other countries. Such a smarter strategy would make it easier for Europe to align with other countries, This compelling narrative must be backed by new types of diplomatic machinery. This machinery should be bolder, more coherent and strategic in order to get the most political leverage from its assets.


This article was first published in Energy Post.

Liz Gallagher is a Senior Policy Advisor at E3G. She leads E3G’s Climate Diplomacy programme, developing and testing political economy analysis in critical countries and translating this into political scenarios for the global deal in 2015 and beyond.

[1] http://www.mos.gov.pl/g2/big/2012_11/ccd741c93488f6911221fac4b94059a7.pdf

[2] http://www.theclimategroup.org/what-we-do/news-and-blogs/second-batch-of-low-carbon-city-pilots-gets-green-light-in-china/

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/13/world/asia/china-releases-plan-to-reduce-air-pollution.html?_r=0

[4] http://www.climateinstitute.org.au/global-climate-leadership-review-2013.html

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/22/us/politics/climate-change-prominent-in-obamas-inaugural-address.html?_r=0

[6] http://environment.yale.edu/climate-communication/

[7] http://www.unilever.co.uk/sustainable-living/greenhousegases/index.aspx

[8] http://www.c40cities.org/c40cities

[9] http://www.un.org/esa/dsd/resources/res_pdfs/csd-19/Background-paper3-transport.pdf

[10] http://pwc.blogs.com/press_room/2013/09/pwc-preview-ipcc-ar5-science-report.html#Business-understands-risks

[11] http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110131/full/news.2011.60.html#B1

[12] http://www.munichre.com/en/media_relations/press_releases/2013/2013_07_09_press_release.aspx

This project action has received funding from the European Commission through a LIFE grant. The content of this section reflects only the author's view. The Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

Newsletter Signup