Can EU climate leadership survive next round of UN talks?

By Joseph Curtin

International climate negotiations are now ratcheting up after something of a post-Durban hiatus.

A UNFCCC Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action will be hosted in Bonn, between 29 April and 3 May 2013.

The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action sets in motion a process – to be completed by 2015 – with the ultimate objective of delivering a top down legally binding emissions reduction agreement to cover all countries (and the EU), applying from 2020.

Has the EU approach to international climate negotiations evolved after its failure in Copenhagen, and its modest success at Durban? Hints are provided by a consultative paper launched on 26 March, which opens the debate within the EU on the shape of a new agreement.

The agreement, it argues, will have to bring together “the current patchwork of binding and non-binding arrangements under the UN climate convention and the Kyoto Protocol into a single comprehensive regime”.

In its communication the EU Commission acknowledges the usefulness of the “bottom up” pledge making process agreed at Copenhagen. For the first time the US, China, India, Brazil, South Africa, the EU and others committed at the international level to specific domestic climate policies as part of the same initiative. The pledges were, however, voluntary, conditional and wholly insufficient to avoid dangerous climate change.

The Commission continues to argue in its consultative paper that only a legally binding Treaty will drive the necessary level of ambition. This is a position that all countries signed up to at Durban, several reluctantly, and albeit at the cost of procrastinating real action.

The consultation asks nine questions of stakeholders. Some of which offer particular insights into the Commission’s thinking.

China’s Minister with responsibility for climate change Xie Zhenhua and EU climate action commissioner Connie Hedegaard. The relationship between the two parties will be at the heart of the 2015 deal (Source: EC)


The first question asks how the ambition gap can be filled. With the world’s poorest countries now accepting emissions cuts, there will be increasing pressure on USA, China, India and others to do likewise. The required step up may happen gradually.

The Commission seems to envisage a more organic agreement which could be adjusted dynamically, “enabling the regular review and, inevitably, strengthening of ambition”. It is a useful flexibility to enable countries to come in on the ground level of an agreement, and perhaps for technological progress (in the areas of shale gas & renewables, for example) to facilitate a further step up in ambition in due course.

The third question requests input around how an agreement could “encourage complementary processes and initiatives, including those carried out by non-state actors”.

The international process has often been criticized for ignoring the efforts of stakeholders, citizens and government at sub-national level. The EU sees ‘international cooperative initiatives’ (ICIs) involving governments, civil society and the private sector as a way to enhance ambition.

These initiatives could involve sectoral approaches focused on the aviation & maritime sectors, or on F-gasses, for example. Innovative thinking about how these efforts could be better tapped and integrated into the international process is required. This could constitute a departure from the Kyoto country-focused approach.

New reality

The fourth question pertains to developing criteria and principles for establishing what is an equitable and fair distribution of the emissions burden. As the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) previously illustrated this is another thorny issue.

There are various conceivable criteria, each with their champions. An interesting point made in the consultation is that 32 countries that are considered “developing countries” under the Convention have a higher per capita GDP than the EU Member State with the lowest per capita GDP! It also points out that China’s per capita CO2 emissions in 2010 were almost on par with those of the EU. Engaging with these new realities will not be easy.

The seventh question asks how countries can be held accountable if they fail to meet their commitments. This is a key question. A legally binding Treaty which countries can withdraw from without sanction to avoid fines (as was the case with Canada) is of questionable value. On the other hand effective enforcement procedures are likely to make the agreement of a treaty more intractable.

The Commission also addresses the shortcomings of the UNFCCC process itself in the eighth question. Here it raises issues around the way decisions are reached at conferences (and indeed the wisdom of hosting a conference every year), the role of the UNFCCC secretariat, and the more effective integration of expert and stakeholder voices.

While the EU is therefore pushing ahead with its preferred top-down legally binding approach, there is room for a radical new kind of agreement in several respects. The agreement that may eventually emerge has the potential to be far more complex, multi-faceted and comprehensive than its predecessors. And yet, somewhat contradictorily, this could make it easier to achieve consensus.

In a similar move to the pre-Copenhagen setting out of stalls, the Commission also launched a Green Paper on its own internal 2030 package, which proposes an emissions reduction target for 2030 (a approach supported by the European Parliament). If agreed this would be something that the EU puts on the table at in 2015 negotiations.

There is a concern in some quarters that the 2030 package will be more difficult than the 2020 package to agree. Commissioner Hedegaard has faced resistance both within the Commission and from member states such as Poland. Critics argue that new targets should only be set once new international emissions reductions are made at the UN level in 2015.

It is true that without EU leadership – and this probably involves arriving at the 2015 negotiations with a target in the back pocket – talks may flounder. On the other hand, it was evident at Copenhagen that playing your hand fully before you have arrived runs the risk of making yourself irrelevant.

It would seem wise that the EU therefore keeps a few tricks up its sleeve for 2015.

The consultation will run until the end of June.

This article is based on a previous analysis for the IIEA Environment Nexus project.

Joseph Curtin is Senior Research Associate with the Institute of International and European Affairs. He has worked for the OECD, NESC (an advisory body to the Irish Prime Minister), and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, on climate and energy policy-related issues. This article is based on a blog for the IIEA Environment Nexus project.


Read more on: Climate politics | COP19 | EU