Can the EU lead the way in the fight against climate change?

03 December 2019 /

7 min


The vast majority of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate change is real and its effects are undeniable, no matter what some politicians say. In order to limit the catastrophic effects of climate emergency, global efforts are necessary, and they might be achieved only through international cooperation. In the last decades, the EU has been able to impose itself as a leader of the international climate negotiations, playing a pivotal role in the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. Nonetheless, the EU’s ambition in the global fight against climate change risks being lost if its Member States do not put an end to their recent internal disagreements.

The EU’s role in the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement

Global climate governance began with the Rio Conference, the so-called “Earth Summit”, which was held in 1992. On this occasion, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed by 154 nations. The first assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published two years earlier, served as the basis for the Framework Convention. Under the aegis of the UNFCCC, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted. The signature of the UNFCCC and later the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 provided an international framework in order to tackle climate change, and it also provided the multilateral platform that was crucially important for the EU’s climate diplomacy in an increasingly multi-polar world. In fact, this was the first opportunity for the EU to exercise its leadership in the multilateral climate regime.
Later on, building on its successful role in the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, the EU was able to continue to influence climate politics during the following Conferences of the Parties (COPs). In this respect, the institution of the High Ambition Coalition (HAC), created six months before the COP21, was crucial. It included the EU, all its Member States, several developing countries and small state islands. The EU had the ability to lead this coalition and convinced other key actors during the talks, such as the US under the Obama administration, as well as Brazil, to join the call for an ambitious deal during the COP21. This Conference resulted in the adoption of the Paris Agreement, a new legally binding framework for an internationally coordinated effort to tackle climate change. This agreement establishes the ambitious objective of holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. In order to achieve these objectives, the Parties aim to reach a global peak of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, and to achieve net-zero emissions in the second half of this century. Therefore, the countries are called to increase the ambition of their climate commitments over time. In particular, the participating countries committed to submitting the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the UNFCCC and to increasing the ambition of their targets every five years. The NDCs are national climate plans that identify the targets and policies that the countries intend to adopt in order to counter the climate change. Moreover, the Paris Agreement mentioned also that the Parties should strive to formulate and communicate long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies.

The EU and the implementation of the Paris Agreement

Although the Paris Agreement represents a fundamental achievement, its full implementation by all Parties is revealing to be complex. In fact, the international landscape has changed in the meantime: in 2017 Donald Trump announced the US’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement; the anti-environmental actions of the Brazilian President Bolsonaro are putting the commitments adopted in Paris at serious risks; and, inside the EU, we see a deep East-West division on the issue of climate change.
At the moment, the EU is reviewing its NDC for 2030 in order to raise the climate target from the current 40% and submit it to the UNFCCC by 2020. At the environment Council meeting held in Luxembourg on the 4th of October 2019, the environment ministers highlighted that in 2020 the EU will update its NDC, as agreed in Paris, but they did not specify by how much. It particular, it has been reported that ten countries – Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, Malta, Poland and Romania – refuse to include specific numbers.
The conclusions of this meeting have been criticized by environmental organizations, which hoped to see more ambitious targets by the EU ahead of COP25 in order to encourage other countries to do the same. In fact, the EU’s credibility as a key actor of climate diplomacy has been attributed mainly to its ability to “lead by example” and implement ambitious climate action domestically. This ability has also been endangered by the heated debate concerning the European Commission’s proposal to make Europe climate neutral. In 2018, the Commission proposed a strategy for the EU to become the world’s first major economy to become climate-neutral by 2050. It has been put forward in accordance with a COP decision that  invites the Parties of the Paris agreement to communicate the mid-century, long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies. Unfortunately, the EU’s move towards climate neutrality by 2050 has been blocked by several Eastern European countries at the European Council summit last June.

Von der Leyen’s green promises

During her opening statement in the European Parliament Plenary Session in July, the new President of the European Commission recognised the importance for the EU to demonstrate leadership in taking real action on climate change. By filling in the void left by the United States, the new Commission intends to boost the EU’s global status and lead the way on climate action, before emerging countries, such as China, take over the climate talks. To achieve the challenging goal to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, which is at the core of her plan, Von der Leyen pledged to put forward a Green Deal for Europe within her first 100 days in office. This Deal aims to ensure that the transition to zero greenhouse gas emissions is implemented while guaranteeing a just transition. In this respect, she intends to set up a Just Transition Fund in order to support those who are most affected by the changes determined by the new ecological measures. Among the other objectives, she aims to: raise the EU’s emissions cutting target from 40% to 50%, if not 55%, by 2030; propose a Sustainable Europe Investment Plan; introduce a Carbon Border Tax; extend the Emissions Trading System; and, partially turn the European Investment Bank into Europe’s climate bank. The task to lead the EU through the climate emergency has been assigned to Frans Timmermans from the Socialists and Democrats group (S&D). He was appointed Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal.
Although Von der Leyen’s  objectives seem to be very ambitious, her plan has already come under fire: it has been criticised for several aspects and from different actors. According to the environmental activists, the new President does not seem to move fast enough in fighting climate change. They are calling for a target of at least 65% by 2030 and they consider her Green Deal as the lowest common denominator among all actors involved. On the other side, some members of the European People’s Party (EPP), her own party, considered that she had made too many concessions to the progressive forces. On a closer look at the Commissioners’ portfolios, it appears that all the finance-related aspects of the green transition fall under the responsibility of Dombrovskis, the Commissioner for the financial services portfolio, not Timmermans. Other members of the S&D group have expressed doubts on the future collaboration between the two Commissioners, considering that with this move Von der Leyen could have intended to give control to the center-right over the financial implementation of the Green Deal while leaving the public responsibility to the center-left. Another point to stress is related to the Fund proposed by the new President. In fact, during the Commissioners’ hearings, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) focused their attention on the question where the investments for the Just Transition Fund would be coming from. As for now, both von der Leyen and Timmermans have not given clear indications on this aspect. The aforementioned Fund has also been attracting the attention of some Eastern European countries, particularly Poland. The Polish government has stressed the high costs of the green transition, especially for the highly coal-dependent countries. Poland’s continuous reluctance in accepting the decarbonization might endanger von der Leyen’s ability to keep her green promises. With the opening of COP25, she will travel to Madrid and represent the European Commission with the European Green Deal. Is it really possible for her to keep her word while the Old Continent is so deeply divided on the question of decarbonizing the EU by 2050? Will the new Commission deliver a fully-fledged Green Deal or a watered-down version of it?
 Evelyn Astuccia, Law and EU studies graduate

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