The contribution of the European Union to the COP26

29 November 2021 /

9 min

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow was the occasion for many countries to voice their concerns and press their interests forward in relation to the issues of climate change. The voices of certain actors were particularly prominent, and the European Union was amongst them as one of the parties with stronger initiative. Indeed, the EU has managed to assert itself as a global leader on climate change issues in the international scene, presenting itself with a unified voice, a cohesive perspective and solid policy proposals. Although the COP26 concluded without any substantial breakthroughs or mobilisations, it managed to solidify some previously-made engagements all the while creating new ones. The European Union is one of the actors that contributed the most to such positive outcomes.

A surprisingly united European Union

The COP26 was characterised by the clash of diverse interests and the energetic negotiations that ensued from it. Within this context, the European Union was one of the major players in the frame, not only thanks to its economic weight, but also to its cohesive discourse and the apparent unity of its Member States. Indeed, the Union showed an excellent display of unity, spirit of initiative, intergovernmentalism and strong representation of EU institutions. Such concordance did not appear out of thin air; far from it, it was the result of a long and hard preparation conducted by the Member States. Its objectives were harmonizing their climate objectives and building a solid position on environmental policies to defend in front of the world. 

Part of this process was years in the making, most notably with the progressive implementation (or the attempt to do so) of the European Green Deal, the massive socio-economic plan to achieve a carbon free European Union by 2050. The scope, projects and initiatives that comprise such an endeavour already put the EU well ahead of other countries at the Climate Change Conference, with many States around the world still not having a clear plan for decarbonisation. Although the European Green Deal had been in the works for a long time as a product of the 2015 Paris Agreement of 2015, most of the ideas that the EU presented at the COP26 were decided only months before the event through a series of summits between the 27 Member States. It was during one of those summits, for example, that the EU agreed to support a proposal for all Member States to increase their national climate goals from ten to five years starting from 2031. Concretely, this entails the revision of a Member State’s climate objectives every five years, a fundamental initiative in regards to ever-changing climate conditions. 

These summits were not without conflict or confrontation, with some countries urging for stronger measures as opposed to others advocating for a more cautious and gradual approach. For example, Member States such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were particularly critical of the EU’s plans for decarbonisation, defining them as unsuitable for facing the current energy challenges. Warsaw was especially critical in regards to the role of coal in power production, an issue that would persist throughout the duration of the COP26, since Poland remains both a major producer and consumer of coal. Delicate matters thus remained within the Union, however, through careful negotiations the Member States were able to find common-grounds upon which to build compromise, showing a united front at the Conference of Parties. 

What did the EU bring to the table?

The European Union presented itself at the COP26 with a solid record and good ideas to put forward. The interests and ambitions of the European Union were presented at the Conference by both national leaders and Presidents of some European institutions. Both the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and its Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans were important actors in conveying European interests to the rest of the international stage. The EU’s main objectives, as stated by Von Der Leyen, were three: firstly, to obtain commitments from other countries to cut emissions in order to limit temperature rise to 1.5°. Secondly, to increase climate finance in order to help developing and vulnerable countries. Thirdly and lastly, to reach an agreement with other countries over the Paris rulebook. EU officials after the conference were positive that significant progress was made over all three. Quoting Frans Timmermans on the final text drafted by the COP26: “It is a text which keeps alive the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. And it is a text which acknowledges the needs of developing countries for climate finance, and sets out a process to deliver on those needs.”  

The compromise that was reached at the Paris Agreement was to keep global warming below 2°C and close to 1.5°C. Studies however show that, with previous commitments, the globe was running towards a catastrophic rise of 2.7°C. Thanks to the COP26 and the actors that took part in it, new pledges were made that, if respected, would maintain the temperature rise to 1.8°C degrees. The European Union also called for countries to further revisit such climate commitments at the end of 2022 in order to put the world in the right direction to stay within a 1.5°C rise. 

The EU also advocated for a stronger, more comprehensive and equitable climate finance. Climate finance refers to the funding directed towards countries that are either still relying on fossil fuels for development or that are paying the consequences of climate change first hand. This sort of climate fund existed before the COP26, and the EU was already the biggest contributor to it, providing more than 25 billion euros per year. During the COP26, the EU pledged an additional 5 billion euros to be dedicated to developing countries before 2027. The EU’s hope is for other developed countries to scale up their contributions and reach an ideal annual target of 100 billion euros as soon as possible. The COP26 was the opportunity for the EU to further publicise this endeavour, although its success can’t yet be assessed.

Lastly, an agreement was reached thanks to thorough negotiation over the so-called “Paris Agreement Rulebook”, a series of goals and regulations for tackling the climate crisis that were first defined during the 2015 Climate Conference in Paris. Most notably, the rules regarding carbon markets and the trading of CO2 reductions remained unclear, with a risk of inaccurate accounting of emissions. In this regard, Europe’s main objective was to complete the technicalities that would allow the rulebook to be fully and functionally in effect, which it now is. It can be argued that on neither of the three objectives the EU had set there was a particular breakthrough or groundbreaking advancement, however real and tangible progress was undeniably made.

A series of joint initiatives 

The EU also participated in the development of other initiatives, in accordance with various other countries and private actors. In this regard, the European Union and its Member States had a fundamental role in kick-starting many of these initiatives and gaining support for them. Firstly, the European Union, together with the United States and other partners, launched the Global Methane Pledge, a proposal aiming at reducing methane emissions by at least 30% before 2030. According to studies it is estimated that this initiative would reduce warming by at least 0.2°C. This endeavour managed to rally support from more than a hundred countries. Secondly, the Commission announced a €1 billion pledge to protect world forests, a five year support package that will help countries manage and restore forests worldwide. Such contributions were soon joined by others coming from various members of the international community. 

Furthermore, in addition to the financial help, the EU guaranteed logistical assistance to help partner countries (mostly Sub-Saharan) to both protect tropical forests and improve the livelihoods of their local populations. Another joint initiative that the European Union participated in was the launch of the International Just Energy Transition. This proposal, with the participation of both the United Kingdom and the United States, aims at accelerating the decarbonisation efforts of South Africa, and will mobilise 8.5 billion dollars through loans and grants in an initial phase. The final goal of this partnership is to contribute to South Africa’s gradual withdrawal from coal usage in the energy sector. 

As mentioned before, the EU also partnered with private actors, most notably with the Breakthrough Energy Catalyst, an ensemble of private organizations spear-headed by Bill Gates aiming at accelerating innovation of technologies to reduce greenhouse emissions. At the COP26 this association, the European Union and the European Investment Bank entered a pioneering partnership to increase investments towards decarbonising technologies, with up to €820 million in funding. In Bill Gates’ words: “This partnership with the European Commission and European Investment Bank will help accelerate the widespread adoption of climate solutions, which will build clean industries and create job opportunities throughout Europe for generations to come.”

Other partnerships were supported and initiated by European Member States, without the direct presence of European institutions. The Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA) for example, an alliance of governments committed to the gradual abandonment of oil and gas production, was led by Denmark together with Costa Rica. The two countries pledged themselves to ending licenses for the production and exploration of fossil fuels. Before long, the partnership had gained momentum and was joined by other six members, namely France, Greenland, Ireland, Quebec, Sweden and Wales. It also received the interest of New Zealand, Italy and the U.S state of California. The European Member States that participated in this joint enterprise were essential in the successful launch of this ambitious project.

The road ahead to the COP27

The COP26 received all kinds of criticism prior, during and after its realisation. The event was depicted as too elitist in nature, without binding directives and little to no concrete results. The flaws of the Conference were highlighted by the media, the public and sometimes even by its participants. Much of this criticism was well-founded, and it is obvious that the COP26 did not solve the world’s problems in an exemplary case of global unity. However, it was never going to be the case, and every small progress made during the Conference is one more step in the right direction. What is certain is that the European Union demonstrated a solid agenda, a strong resolve and a high level of cohesion among its Member States. Hopefully, this unity will be shown once again in November 2022, when the 27th Conference of Parties takes place in Sharm el-Sheikh (Egypt). This would help build upon the partial successes of the COP26 and continue towards the decarbonisation of the planet.

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