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Climate Concerns> Opinion
UPDATED: December 31, 2009 NO. 1 JANUARY 7, 2010
Dark Skies Over Europe
The EU loses its leadership role in international negotiations on climate change



European Union influence in the global fight against climate change was put to the test at the Copenhagen summit. But judging by the negotiations in Denmark late last month, it is safe to say that the EU significantly lost its position.

Since the Bali climate change conference in 2007, the EU has taken several high-profile steps to assert the leadership role it had previously secured in the international climate change arena since the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol a decade ago.

But the inherent flaws in its actions since have seriously tarnished its image. Indeed, coupled with subpar emissions reduction goals and an overall reluctance to act, EU member nations have lost much of their moral high ground.

In 2007, notably, the EU announced it would cut greenhouse gas emissions by anywhere from 20 to 30 percent compared with 1990 levels before 2020.

But this is problematic: Moreover, to keep the increase in global average temperature below 2 degrees Celsius, the EU's emissions reduction target must, in fact, be raised to at least 40 percent. Other countries, such as Japan and Norway, meanwhile, have already surpassed the EU in terms of their emissions reduction.

Simply put, the EU has disappointed the world community by adopting an "I will if you will" strategy toward honoring its own mitigation commitments. Consequently, the United States, China, India and Brazil have devised their own targets and plans instead of following the EU model.

The EU has neglected to create a satisfactory emissions reduction system, too. In recent years, it has tried to make the EU Greenhouse Gas Emission Trading System—which it views as a pillar of its climate change policy—a prototype for future global emissions trading. Since its launch in 2005, however, the system has performed poorly—evidenced by low carbon prices, coupled with two major price crashes.

On the first trading day following the opening of the Copenhagen conference, in fact, the price of a ton of carbon dioxide emissions dropped by up to 8.7 percent.

In addition, recent EU calls for airline companies to purchase carbon allowances have been met with stubborn resistance. In fact, much of the reductions the EU has achieved to date can be attributed to the decline in industrial production and economic recession in its East European member states.

This is complemented by Europe's purchase of overseas carbon offsets, instead of the plain implementation of carbon reduction standards.

Meanwhile, it should be noted that the EU is failing to provide adequate assistance to countries suffering the most from climate change. While the Copenhagen conference was in session, for instance, EU members convened a summit in Brussels to forge a consensus on the amount of financial assistance they should provide in lieu of the summit.

At the conference, European leaders then offered some $10 billion over the next three years to help developing nations battle global warming. This amount, not surprisingly, fell far short of what most poorer African countries had expected.

But EU leaders did not specify the source of the funding—much less how it would be divided among EU members during the Brussels summit.

Indeed, at present, only 17 EU members have specifically pledged to contribute, while Poland and several other Central and East European countries have refused to join, citing their own economic difficulties and high unemployment.

In the Copenhagen Accord, moreover, the EU promised to launch a Copenhagen Green Climate Fund, along with other industrialized nations, vowing to jointly raise $100 billion a year by 2020 to address developing countries' needs. Since the Copenhagen Accord is not a legally binding document, however, the promise remains up in the air.

Conflicting interests among the three major players in international climate change negotiations—the EU, the United States and the developing bloc—have also eroded EU influence.

Since U.S. President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, America committed itself to seeking dominance in international climate change negotiations.

The Obama administration, for one, views the Copenhagen process as an opportunity for the United States to gain an upper hand over the EU.

In many ways, this endeavor has been successful. As Washington has gone out of its way to promote new energy and foster U.S. emissions trading markets while shuttling between industrial nations and developing countries such as China and India, the EU has grown even more marginalized.

Still, for all its ambitions, the United States is not making a great difference in international climate change negotiations, owing to a legislative stalemate at home coupled with huge pressure from domestic interest groups.

The awkward situation of the United States, meanwhile, has now foiled effective collaboration between Washington and Brussels. Instead, both sides are embroiled in chronic disputes—unable even to reach a fundamental consensus on the base year by which emissions should be cut.

While at odds with the United States, the EU has not won support from developing countries, either. Worse yet, it even attempted to abandon the Kyoto Protocol altogether, while deliberately neglecting the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" as defined in the protocol.

Even before the Copenhagen conference opened, a so-called "Danish text" surfaced in the media. The text, initialized in private by developed countries—including the United States and Britain—imposed binding emissions reduction obligations on developing countries. The document flatly ignored their relative economic vulnerabilities, and weak capacity to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

At the same time, it gave minimal responsibilities for industrial nations to provide financial assistance and technology transfers to undeveloped countries.

Although the draft quickly came under fire, some developed countries still attempted to bypass the Ad hoc Working Groups and push it through before the high-level segment of the Copenhagen conference.

In the end, the move aggravated the conflicts between the industrial bloc and the developing bloc—thus amplifying the criticism of poorer nations toward the EU.

The author is deputy director of the Department for Information and Contingencies Analysis at the China Institute of International Studies

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