"Any way the wind blows" - Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody
Global collective action on climate change was deficient even before the advent of COVID-19. As with several other areas of global governance, the lack of leadership is a key reason for this. If this is to be remedied, it is essential that the EU not only reaches its own targets regarding climate change measures but also makes climate change a priority of its external relations. So far, beyond fine words, its “climate diplomacy” has been mixed bag at best.
The current European Commission has made action on climate change one of its priorities with a, “European Green Deal”. While it can be criticized (in particular if it promises enough money), there does seem to be general cautious optimism (incl. from civil society organisations such as the WWF). Of course, climate change and the steps needed to address it - transforming our industrial system, our financial sector, and our personal habits – are massive challenges. Even within the EU the Commission cannot engender the needed change by itself. While the European Parliament is generally an ally (both regarding climate change but also the need for a pan-European approach), individual Member States and the Council often have divergent positions. It remains to be seen what the “Green Deal” delivers.
The Green Deal includes an external component, which focuses on the EU’s global role. While the communication from the Commission does include a range of examples, both the main text and the annex (the “roadmap” of key actions) are vague with regard to a possible climate diplomacy. This is a missed opportunity. First of all, “Green diplomacy” has been on the EU agenda at least since the 2003, when the European Council launched an initiative in this area. A 2018 resolution of the European Parliament on “climate diplomacy” called for a range of actions. In a blog the HRVP points out the importance of this “Green Deal diplomacy”, but unfortunately also remains largely unspecific with regards to specific actions and priorities. Moreover, dealing with global issues is a specific obligation of the EU under the Treaty. The lack of progress is disappointing.
Secondly, the need for global leadership on climate action is evident. If climate change – and the measures needed to address it are matter of debate in the EU, this pales in comparison with the debate in the United States. While poorer and developing countries have to balance difficult current priorities with the needed actions and face challenges to ensure the necessary investments, richer countries need to lead the change and action needed. This is even more the case if we take into account total contributions to causing climate change (by some calculations G20 countries are responsible for 80% of greenhouse gas emissions). Someone needs to fill the leadership gap by clearly prioritizing climate diplomacy.
Third, EU has had mixed results with its development of climate diplomacy. At least since the 1980’s, the EU – or European countries – have played an important role in environmental negotiations (e.g. treaties protecting biodiversity or implementing environmental regulation via the acquis). With regards to climate change specifically, EU results have been complicated. While there was strong support for the Kyoto Protocol, the Copenhagen conference in 2009 was a failure for the EU. Even the recent COP 25 in Madrid, where the priority was to address outstanding issues from the Paris Agreement, was largely disappointing. The EU positions on climate change face internal political tensions and the global context (marked by the UNFCC process) is complex (and the role of the EU institutions specifically is somewhat unclear). Nevertheless, the successes show EU leadership via climate diplomacy is possible and in light of the importance of the issue warrants reflection.
What is to be done? The Green Deal’s action plan has as an action entitled, “Strengthen the EU’s Green Deal Diplomacy in cooperation with Member States” (with its “indicative timetable” noting “from 2020”). As the Green Deal notes, “The EU will continue to promote and implement ambitious environment, climate and energy policies across the world. It will develop a stronger ‘green deal diplomacy’ focused on convincing and supporting others to take on their share of promoting more sustainable development. By setting a credible example, and following-up with diplomacy, trade policy, development support and other external policies, the EU can be an effective advocate. The Commission and the High Representative will work closely with Member States to mobilise all diplomatic channels both bilateral and multilateral – including the United Nations, the G7, G20, the World Trade Organization and other relevant international fora.” The Green Deal lists a wide range of opportunities where climate diplomacy could play a role (e.g. EU – China summits, trade negotiations, the single market as standard-setter). The Council has always been more tentative, for example emphasizing Member State sovereignty in energy matters and the need for energy security.
If the EU is to really make climate diplomacy a priority, the relevant EU institutions (notably the Commission and EEAS) will need to develop a clear strategy. The above-mentioned resolution from the European Parliament provides a broad range of concerns and issues and can complement the somewhat limited perspectives of the Green Deal on climate diplomacy. The resolution also makes concrete suggestions with regards to the functioning of climate diplomacy in the EU (e.g. calling for the High Representative to coordinate this effort, specific funding and structures for climate diplomacy, and a regular dialogue with the Parliament on the matter).
A specific communication on climate diplomacy from the Commission and EEAS would focus the attention of all (in particular the Council and Member States, but also between Commission DG’s) and could form the basis for a strategy and dialogue. The range of EU stakeholders involved, the many tools for the EU (the UNFCC process, bilateral / regional agreements, development cooperation, enlargement negotiations, etc…) mean that a clear and monitorable overview is essential. Moreover, the ongoing debate on these issues within the EU mean that a strategy is also important to guide and understand the internal EU political factors. Indeed, the importance of the linkages between domestic and external policies for Europe’s “geopolitical ambitions has been noted.
All of the elements of climate diplomacy will face challenges and trade-offs, both in terms of diplomatic strategy and technical measures. Yet the EU is in a strong to position to make significant contributions to the global political process, if it gets organized. With the current Commission’s geopolitical and green ambitions, it will be interesting to see where the EU’s climate diplomacy goes. For global climate justice, it is essential that the EU’s climate diplomacy finally gets serious.
26.08.2020, Brussels, Belgium
Online encampment of A. S. Barry. Disparate and not-so-disparate thoughts on international relations, development, writing, and life.