Millennium Post

Climate change: EU at crossroads

For a long time, the European Union (EU) has been recognised as a credible leader in climate change. The issue of climate change, which has arguably made the EU globally relevant as a political entity, has received most significant responses from the EU in the form of objectives, practices and policies related to climate change.

However, over the past few years, especially post-Copenhagen Summit, the EU's leadership has significantly dwindled. The hegemonic re-emergence of the US on the climate scene, along with economic crises, long and inflexible decision-making process within the EU, the EU states' diversified interests in climate change could be cited as critical reasons for the same.

Further, Brexit vote and rise of populist parties have generally scaled down EU's climate ambition as a whole, including reduced support for deployment of renewables. The inability of the EU to bounce back was very evident from the fact that the blueprint of Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015, was widely defined and dictated by the US with China pitching in wherever it could. Nevertheless, the French Presidency under the EU did play the role of bridge-builder at Paris rather neatly.

China eyeing the leadership position

The advent of Trump and his appointee Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State have cast a huge shadow on the US climate change commitments. Under US President Donald Trump, who is extremely sceptical about climate change and Paris Agreement, has provided an opportunity for other powers to rise and fill in the vacuum. China, in particular, has been vocal and has shown great willingness to take up the leadership space. Ahead of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Xie Zhenhua, who serves as China's special envoy for climate change since 2015, pledged Chinese leadership role in combating global climate change. He expressed willingness to collaborate with parties 'to achieve economic restructuring'.

Amid apprehensions that the US could officially quit the Paris Agreement, China warned Trump against abandoning the climate agreement and urged the US to honour commitments and abide by rules.

The EU, however, is visibly taking its role rather sublimely in climate change. Lauding the progress on climate action at Marrakech, Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy Miguel Arias Cañete reinforced its commitments to climate change rather than conveying the message of leadership when he said, "We will stand by Paris, we will defend Paris, and we will implement Paris."

Though the EU seems to be uncomfortable in donning leadership role, nevertheless, it has not been altogether passive in climate change issue demonstrated by numerous important initiatives taken in recent past.

EU's recent climate initiatives

In 2015, the EU and its Member States provided €17.6 billion to help developing countries tackle climate change. It is by far the largest fund received from the developed world. At Marrakech, the EU's pledges accounted for a substantial part (more than 90 per cent) of the total amount available under the Adaptation Fund. Additionally, Germany has pledged €40 million, and the European Commission has pledged €20 million to the InsuResilience initiative (which aims to provide climate risk insurance to 400 people in developing countries by 2020). By 2020, the EU has promised to facilitate investments to increase the renewable electricity generation capacity by at least 5 GW in the African continent.

Domestically, a new effort-sharing regulation for the period 2021-2030 is in progress. The European Parliament has adopted a draft reform of Europe's emissions trading system (ETS) with the objective of balancing greater cuts in greenhouse gases with protection for energy-intensive industries. New sectors like agriculture are brought within the ETS.

Given the vast experience in the field of multilateral climate diplomacy, a tried-and-tested burden-sharing model of emission reductions in its arsenal, wide array of political resources at its disposal and notable role in increasing competitiveness of renewable energy, the EU is arguably still well-placed to be the lead actor in climate negotiations. As the global community is struggling to implement the Paris Agreement, the EU needs to step up its action.

What needs to be done?

Pool in more Political Resources: Brussels, still, is most adequately equipped to lead climate change, considering the amount of political resources at its disposal. However, currently, much of the climate agenda is in the hands of Directorate-General for Climate Action (DG-CLIMA) Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete. To scale up its climate game, more political resources need to be pooled in. While leadership from the top is essential comprising Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission and Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, engagement of sub-national actors such as cities, business and civil society is also vital. This will allow for a more consolidated political leadership.

Lead by example: Firstly, the EU needs to substantially increase its targets for the next round of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) in 2020 and subsequently for 2030 and 2050 as well. In a first-of-a-kind initiative in the developed world, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on COP 22 on October 6, 2016. It clearly shows that the current climate efforts are not sufficient for meeting the objectives of the Paris Agreement and developed countries, especially the EU, need to reduce their emissions more than their current pledges. The discussions on these lines must result in a comprehensive long-term climate and energy policy of the EU. Secondly, the EU needs to put in place a faster phase-out strategy for complete phase-out of coal by next decade. Few countries in the EU, including Poland and Greece, have, however, announced contradictory new coal plants. A leaked document of European Commission cited by The Guardian on February 15, 2016, mentioned the need for profound lifestyle changes for meeting climate targets. However, till now, there has not been any official proposal or plans on how to put into place sustainable practices and lifestyle model. When it's evident that the American model of lifestyle is purely consumption-based and it does not have a deliberate policy to reduce its consumption of primary energy, goods and services, the EU can work towards providing a credible, sustainable lifestyle model.

Bring equity back to the climate agenda: The Paris Agreement has not been clear as to how would equity be implemented practically. The issues of global stocktake, transparency framework, Monitoring, Reporting and Verification (MRV), finance, adaptation and loss and damage offer opportunity and scope where EU could come up with a vision document on how equity can be implemented in these areas.

Technical Cooperation: The implementation of Paris Agreement largely depends on the credible and efficient monitoring and reporting structures that is MRV. The EU by far has the most advanced MRV mechanisms which the international community, the developing countries, in particular, can learn and adopt from. The second potential area is the ETS. Though heavily criticised, it is the most innovative of the EU's policies to cut emissions from various sectors of its economy. The adoption of draft reform proposal indicates that the EU is on the way to restructure and reform its ETS. Countries such as China, which are scheduled to roll out their national ETS later this year, must draw lessons and expertise from the EU. The third important area of cooperation can be renewable energy. At 276 GW, the EU boasts of highest renewable energy generation capacity in the world. In 2015, renewables accounted for the majority (77 per cent) of new EU generation capacity for the eighth consecutive year. Scotland, Germany and the UK use a large part of its electricity capacity from renewables providing opportunities for technical cooperation.

Focus on adaptation, loss and damage and agriculture: At Marrakech Climate Summit, no credible outcomes emerged on issues vital to developing countries. Negotiations on agriculture proved to be futile with no formal text even released at the end. Now is the crucial time for the EU to forge partnerships with developing world, focussing on attaining inclusive outcomes on such issues that are essential elements of the Paris Agreement.


There is a growing opinion that China is well-positioned to take up the leading role in the climate regime. However, a more realistic view is that of the EU rising to the challenge. EU's multilateral leadership can provide far more credibility and trust globally, considering its record and its image as a soft power. The EU must seize the next climate mid-session at Bonn.

(The writer is a senior researcher at Centre for Science and Environment. Views expressed are strictly personal.)
Next Story
Share it