Euroland: psyched and ready for climate charm offensive

The European Union has its climate negotiating priorities set out on six-foot banners, but will it get its way in Paris?

(Flickr/ )

The EU flag flutters outside the Berlaymont, the headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels (Flickr/ TPCOM)

By Alex Pashley in Brussels

The spectre of Copenhagen hangs heavy in the minds of officials working in the European Commission’s warren of slick glass and steel.

In 2009, climate negotiations in the Danish capital imploded. Chastened, countries have taken six years to re-attempt striking a global warming pact.

The stage is set for an agreement of sorts at a December summit in Paris. But conferences over the past year in Lima, Geneva and Bonn, tasked with clearing the heavy load, have flubbed.

Nor has the trickle of climate pledges given UN-backed talks the sunshine period they craved to refine a negotiating text, which stands at a hefty 80+ pages.

To date, 39 countries have stated how they will cut CO2 emissions by 2030, with more than a hundred yet to deliver. Together these pledges, called “intended nationally determined contributions”, will fall short in curbing global warming, analysts say.

“We know the glass is not even half full, a third full maybe, in terms of what it needs to be to get to 2C [internationally agreed warming limit],” a senior EU source told a reporters briefing in Brussels, which RTCC attended this week.

“But Paris is going to decide the period 2020 to 2025 or 2030. [Climate change] is not something we are going to conclude in Paris, even if the INDCs don’t add up.”

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With five months to go, the EU has its strategy so well defined, it’s printed on six-foot display banners in our conference room. But privately top chiefs are managing expectations. Paris cannot be overburdened, or we could see a repeat of 2009, they fear.

Any deal must be legally binding, countries must sign up to five-year reviews to deepen carbon cuts, and an old firewall dividing rich and poor nations must be dismantled, runs the EU wishlist.

World leaders should come at the start of the two-week meet to inject oomph, not repeat Copenhagen’s mistakes by taking over at the end.

UN talks in Copenhagen in 2009 ended in acrimony (Flickr/ UNFCCC)

UN talks in Copenhagen in 2009 ended in acrimony (Flickr/ UNFCCC)

Will Brussels get its way?

Diplomacy is central. The bloc of 28 countries is drawing on a network of 3,000 diplomats abroad to advance its interests, and has a database with details of the stances of countries’ opposite numbers in environment and foreign ministries, it says.

“Paris is not another COP [Conference of Parties annual round of UN talks],” the EU commissioner for climate and energy, Miguel Arias Canete, told reporters. “I note a sense of urgency when talking with ministers.”

Leading by example

The EU sees itself as leading by example on climate action. It got serious in 2005 with the establishment of a emissions trading scheme. That ETS may border on farce as a glut of credits subdues the price of polluting, but it has paved the way for versions in North America and Asia.

And it is starting to decouple economic growth from carbon emissions. Its economy has expanded 45% since 1990, while emissions fell 17%. Regulations have resulted in cars, buildings and factories releasing less CO2.

Industry bettered its energy intensity by 19% between 2001 and 2011, while the US managed just 9% in the same period.

That’s the message the EU will bring to convince climate laggards greener economies work.

Officials talk of “mainstreaming” climate action, bringing directorates from trade to transport in on the theme. And a fifth of next year’s European Commission budget, $192 billion, is earmarked for climate-linked initiatives.

The EU was the first to outline its commitment for 2030, pledging a cut of “at least 40%” from 1990 levels. Renewables will make up 27% of its energy consumption, it aims.

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But it’s no homogenous bloc. Poland, the Czech Republic and several Baltic states that rely on coal bridle at those targets. There is a clear split with more progressive countries in northern and Western Europe.

“I would be putting my head in the sand if I denied there weren’t differences between member states in terms in terms of the energy mix, how important coal is for some for example,” said an EU spokesperson. “It’s a constant struggle to get a common position, but in the negotiations we go out with a position we have defined collectively.”

On track to outperform its 20% Kyoto reduction target for 2020, the EU could go further, said Louisa Casson at think tank E3G. But the Commission has “tried to pre-emptively clamp down on ways to raise ambition” with other member states.

Tussles with Russia over Ukraine, Greece’s possible exit from the Eurozone and a protracted migrant crisis capture headlines. Sometimes these work with the climate agenda – energy efficiency is part of the plan for cutting reliance on Russian gas – but they can distract from it.

And Brussels is under assault from dissenting countries that feel queasy with the concept of “ever-growing union”. Eurosceptic parties made gains in recent British and Austrian elections.

“Inevitably there is limited time and mental space for European leaders to focus on climate change right now,” said Michael Jacobs, advisor to the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate.

“But that’s OK: it doesn’t need leaders’ attention till the autumn, and I have no doubt that it will get it then. For now, discussions remain at a technical level.”

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As for outward diplomacy, the EU has been rather sidelined by the increasingly cosy relationship between the US and China.

It needs to “pony up” on issues that matter to its allies, said Casson. It has “failed to engage meaningfully” on finance and adaptation to the increasing threat of weather extremes and sea level rise – key concerns for the developing world, she said.

Updating the concept of “common but differentiated responsibility”, a tenet of the UN climate process, to reflect changed political realities is core for the EU negotiating team.

According to rules drawn in 1992, the world’s 43 top industrialised countries are solely responsible for emissions cuts. Of those 34 OECD members have to finance green projects in poor countries.

(Pic: US Embassy/The Hague)

China and the US announced a joint climate deal in November 2014, weeks after the EU made public its 2030 plans (Pic: US Embassy/The Hague)

That’s outdated. China has come from being the globe’s sixth emitter to overtake the United States as its first. Emissions per capita have jumped to 7.2 tonnes of CO2 a year, leapfrogging the EU average of 6.8.

China now makes up over a quarter of global emissions; the EU is now a tenth. The Asian country should peak its emissions before 2030, but other emerging economies like India will continue to pump more carbon.

Plus poorer countries can afford resilience-building projects more now. Foreign direct investment and remittances have surpassed overseas development aid. China is bankrolling investments in Africa and Latin America.

“There’s no logic to stay with annex and non-annex  countries,” Canete told RTCC. “Some areas of China have a larger gross national product than some EU member states.”

World Bank: Funds lacking to help poor tackle climate impacts

Knocking down the firewall will be hard, all the same. Poor countries want to see something in return if they are to accept some responsibility for curbing their emissions.

The international community has promised to mobilise US$100 billion a year by 2020 for projects to shield the poor from the worst impacts of climate change and help green their development.

Countries like Morocco and Ethiopia have already predicated their carbon reductions on the cash.

EU chiefs say they are doing their bit, pointing to €9.5 billion (US$10.6bn) of climate finance in 2013, out of a total US$35-50 billion of public money from developed countries. Member states have pledged another €4.7 billion to the Green Climate Fund.

But there must be a pipeline of viable projects, without writing a “blank cheque”, a source said.

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As for the EU’s fixation on a legally binding treaty, that crosses one of the US “red lines”.

Given Republicans’ fierce opposition to a climate deal, the US will only commit to what president Barack Obama can deliver without going through Congress.

Some elements of the deal could have legal force, but it will be hard to hold countries to their carbon-cutting targets.

There is also resistance from countries like China to strict monitoring of emissions performance, a priority for the EU.

Even if Paris fails to deliver against the 2C goal, if it can get all countries on board with this economy-transforming agenda, it will be a diplomatic triumph.

The UN process is a “complex exercise,” said Canete, and “we mustn’t get bogged down in the wording.”

So determined is he to strike a deal, the commissioner and head of EU delegation will go into overtime if he has to.

“If there are three more days of work let’s have it… If I need another week I will keep on negotiating.”

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