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'The Big View' March 2012 (Part 1)

The EU’s Climate Change Challenge

Katja Biedenkopf is a postdoctoral fellow at the research group ‘The Transformative Power of Europe’, Free University Berlin.

The Earth Hour initiative sends a message to governments globally for more ambitious measures on climate change mitigation – but does anyone listen? 

On 31 March 2012, millions of people around the world will join the Earth Hour initiative and switch off their lights to call for action on climate change. Initiated by WWF, this yearly event started in Australia in 2006. In the following years, more individuals from more countries joined. In 2011, hundreds of millions of people across 135 countries switch off their lights for Earth Hour.

According to the organisers, the initiative sends the message that “the climate challenges facing our planet are so significant that change needs to be global” – but have global governments heard this message? The EU seems to have listened to it. It has engaged in efforts to take on leadership on climate change policy internally and globally. The big question that arises however is: How much can the EU achieve with its leadership in a global context of widely diverging policy positions and in times of an internal economic downturn?

One major external action of the EU is its efforts to drive international climate change negotiations for the period following the Kyoto Protocol. While many observers labelled the EU’s performance at the 2009 negotiations in Copenhagen a failure, the tides seem to have changed. The EU prides itself of having achieved the goals that it set itself in the 2011 negotiation round in Durban. However, when looking at the Durban agreement, it becomes clear that it is still far away from the ambitious commitment that would be needed to achieve the goal of limiting global warming to 2°C. The EU’s negotiation goals and expectations were more ambitious for the Copenhagen meeting than for the 2010 Cancun and the 2011 Durban meetings. Durban was celebrated as a success because the EU achieved large parts of what it set out to achieve but these goals were less ambitious than the Copenhagen targets and expectations two years earlier. The EU’s success in Durban thus partially resulted from lower ambitions.

While the Earth Hour initiative suggests a global agreement amongst individuals that bold action is needed to address climate change, governments and legislatures of countries such as the United States, Canada, China and India are very reluctant to commit to any ambitious and binding action. The Earth Hour organisers launched an initiative that is called ‘I will if you will’, which seems to be the motto of the US government, too. It insists that it doesn’t commit if China doesn’t step up its commitments. Contrary to the EU, the concept of leadership through introducing domestic climate change policy measures does not find enough traction in the US legislature. Emerging economies such as China insist on the Western world’s responsibility for historic emissions and refuse to play the US’ ‘I will if you will’ game. The EU’s efforts to lead global climate change negotiations appear thus cumbersome and only yielding slow progress. The toned down Durban goals seem to reflect the realisation of this fact.

The EU can try and play another card in the game of external climate change governance, which is the attractiveness of its market. By introducing measures that link access to the EU internal market to certain climate change mitigation requirements, EU policy can have extraterritorial effects. The recent extension of the EU emissions trading system to the aviation sector is an example of such a measure. It however also demonstrates the limits of this approach. The issue became politicised. The US Congress is discussing a proposal against the EU measure and China introduced regulation prohibiting Chinese air carriers to join the EU system. The extraterritorial effects of EU internal policy, which proved to work well for subjects such as hazardous substances in electronic products seem to have come close to their limits in the aviation emissions trading case. It remains to be seen whether the EU can withstand the calls for the abolition of the system and whether other countries and aviation companies embrace the EU measure.

A third option that the EU can use for driving global climate change mitigation is measures directly targeted towards change in other countries. This could be conditional payments, technology transfer and capacity building. However, it is very doubtful whether such measures alone could yield the mitigation effects that are needed to keep climate change to an acceptable level.

The EU thus finds itself in a challenging international context for its efforts to drive the development of ambitious global climate change mitigation policy. In addition, the EU-internal context has turned into a growing challenge. The economic problems that many EU Member States are facing seem to have contributed to a toning down of EU ambition in implementing internal climate change policies and goals in the past two years or so. Examples for this are the Energy Efficiency Directive and the 2050 roadmap. While leading by example was a strong point of the EU in the Copenhagen negotiations, the level of confidence might have dropped by the Durban meeting. The EU operates in a challenging international context combined with an internal situation that witnessed the ebbing away of some of the previous ambition.

Being the only one to switch off the lights, the EU could not achieve its goal of global climate change mitigation. Other countries and their governments need to join, too. The EU has a range of options to take on global climate change leadership. These include the efforts to drive international negotiations, unilateral policy that leverages the internal market and measures that are directly targeted towards encouraging change in other countries through diplomatic, financial and capacity-building efforts. However, these options are severely curtailed by the global political climate in which agreement on any bold measures seems light years away. Nevertheless, Earth Hour is a sign of hope for more ambitious action on climate change mitigation. Sending a message to their governments could be an important step that individuals can engage in. Some more international allies would help to avoid a situation in which the EU is a leader without followers.