The EU’s need for committed and inspiring climate action

Very recently the South Centre called for renewed leadership of the EU in climate change negotiations at the UNFCCC climate talks in Bonn, as printed in the Guardian. A lack of EU leadership may doom climate talks to failure.

The EU sees itself as a leader in climate negotiations (see DG Climate) and in the past has demonstrated that it is capable of exerting significant influence in the climate field, most notably through its propellant position during the Kyoto Protocol agreements from the 1990s onwards. At that time the EU overcame internal divisions among its member states and took the opportunity to diminish US power in the increasingly important field of environmental governance.

Compared to those days the EU does currently not seem to be in the mood to lead. Maybe too caught up with economic recovery, signs of the EU’s aspiration to leadership are lacking in the EU internal and external policy and politics. First, in order to lead others the EU needs to clear and ambitious commitments to carbon reduction. Its lack of commitment to climate leadership became for example evident at the Cancun climate change conference last year. The EU offered to raise its carbon emissions reduction target from 20% to 30% of 1990 levels on the condition that others also committed to more ambitious targets. The EU continued to hold this position recently in Bonn. Even considering the EU’s internal constraint of having to align differing opinions from its member states, this is not how a leader in climate change politics (and as said, this is the role the EU attributes to itself) behaves. Leaders set targets and move ahead in achieving them; they do not wait for others to move alongside with them. Although there are a number of calls internally for an increase in EU climate commitments, most notably from the Committee for Environment, Public Health and Security last month, these discussions (let us hope they succeed) are too non-committal and too late to have made a change in recent climate talks in Cancun and Bonn.

More hints of lack of leadership become apparent when we look at the EU’s carbon emissions and carbon emission reductions. Besides the important fact that the EU has achieved a great deal of its CO2 reductions through the so-called “EU bubble” burden sharing agreement of shifting emission allowances internally (see John Vogler and Charlotte Bretherton 2006), we need to look at the fact that the EU is one of the greatest trade powers in the world.  

In 2008, for example, with 16.7% in global exports and 19.1% of global imports, the EU took the lead in external trade ahead of the USA and China (EC Eurostat 2011). These extensive trading activities are in contradiction with most of EU objectives in climate change. Trading activities foster carbon emissions through higher resource use for consumption and production, long and often unnecessary transport ways and higher waste production. They also confuse calculations about real EU carbon emissions and decoupling efforts. Currently, the EU comes third after China and the USA in carbon emissions by country. If we were, however, to include carbon emissions caused by import trading activities (goods are produced in one country but eventually consumed in another) and relocation of production sites (consequently also relocation of emissions abroad) the EU endeavours in climate change protection would look much worse. For example, researchers from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research found that taking Germany’s trading activities into consideration (i.e. accounting for its exported and imported CO2 emissions) would lead to a revision of the country’s domestic emissions upwards by 15%, as reported in the taz. This number may not at first seem very high; considering, however, how difficult it seems to be for the EU to increase its carbon reduction commitments from 20% to 30%, the revision is significant. 

It follows that, to be a resolute and inspiring leader in climate change policy and also in other sustainability areas, the EU, in conjunction with its member states, would work towards taking full responsibility for all carbon emissions that it causes, internally as well as abroad. It could implement new, meaningful measures to work out its global emissions and by doing so encourage others to act similarly. Creating awareness of accurate emission production is the basis for fair negotiations and behaviour change.

Ultimately, for me, to be a truly coherent sustainability actor, the EU would downsize its global trading activities and instead concentrate on regional production and consumption. This however, may (still) be a little too radical for the EU. Right now, a lot of people would be content for the EU to realise its partly announced plans of reducing carbon emissions by 30% by 2020. 

Whether this move would be enough to convince others to take comparable climate protection measures, particularly considering those opportunities that the EU has missed in recent climate negotiations, I am not sure. If however, the EU is seriously interested in regaining its leadership position in climate change talks, and does not want to be led by others, it needs to demonstrate a clear commitment and lead by example.