The EU’s climate strategy for Paris: recipe for another failure?

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Credit: Moyan Brenn via Flickr

Credit: Moyan Brenn via Flickr

The European Commission has proposed a strategy for the Paris climate talks that includes the aim of achieving a “Paris Protocol”. According to Susanne Dröge and Oliver Geden of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin, this strategy does not take into account the new global context of the negotiations. They urge the EU to drop the word “protocol”, consider how to align the international process with internal EU climate policy making, and accept that a science-based approach to climate action in the tradition of the Kyoto protocol is not viable.

On 6 March 2015, EU environment ministers agreed a mitigation target as the EU’s official contribution to ongoing climate talks under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC): by 2030 the EU intends to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 percent below 1990 levels.

At around the same time, the European Commission unveiled a far-reaching and detailed proposal for the design of a new international climate agreement. In the process of adopting a formal EU negotiating mandate, member states now have to decide whether to support the Commission’s proposals. Their considerations will need to bring internal European interests and France’s role as host of the UN climate talks in December into harmony with overall EU climate policy ambitions.

National climate commitments in the UNFCCC process

All 195 parties to the UNFCCC were asked to announce their “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) to a new global climate agreement by the end of March 2015. But by this deadline, only 32 countries (the EU-28, Switzerland, Norway, United States, Mexico) had done so. By the end of June,  Russia, Canada, China and seven small countries had joined them. (The EU had hoped that by adhering to the schedule, it would set an example to other states and underscore its credibility in fighting climate change.)

The INDCs have not been clearly defined in the UNFCCC negotiation process. On the one hand, they are supposed to serve as a means of communicating national climate targets well in advance of the Paris conference. On the other hand, they are a vehicle to promote a comprehensive post-2020 global agreement that will see all parties, not just industrialised countries, contribute to climate policy. (Until now, only industrialised countries were bound to specific emission reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol; emerging economies such as China and India were exempt. The primary objective in Paris will be to overcome this divide between industrialised and developing nations on climate action – even if it remains anchored in the 1992 UNFCCC text itself as “Annex I” and “non-Annex I” countries.)

Like in Copenhagen in 2009, the EU will again face the challenge of balancing its role as host with its function of driving climate protection efforts forward.

The flexibility of the INDCs will bring different ideas about the content of a new treaty into play. Not only will countries be able to announce their reduction targets in an individual manner, they can also present other national measures – for instance, strategies for adapting to climate change or sectoral approaches to mitigation such as energy policy programs.

The EU has presented a vision in its INDC for what its contribution to global climate protection could look like and how that vision could be realised in concrete terms. The EU views the INDCs primarily as a list of mitigation commitments and accompanying measures to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius by the end of this century. It has stated explicitly that its own target is consistent with the objective of cutting global emissions by 50 percent between 1990 and 2050, which would require industrialised countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 percent by mid-century.

The United States has adopted a similar approach. In contrast, Russia has not set a new climate goal, but has maintained the level it had set for 2020 at the 2009 Copenhagen conference. Mexico, the first emerging economy to formally announce its climate pledge, plans to peak its emissions growth in 2026 and cut the growth in absolute emissions to 25 percent below “business as usual”. The same concept lies behind the Chinese offer to let emissions peak by 2030 by reducing the CO2-intensity of its GDP by 60 to 65 percent.

The proposal for a “Paris Protocol”: Not a model for success

Well over a week before the INDC decision by EU environment ministers, the Commission submitted a much more comprehensive proposal for how international climate policy should look after 2020. In a formal policy paper, the Commission presented a detailed strategy for EU negotiations to produce a “Paris Protocol” – a kind of blueprint for a new global climate agreement.

What is especially remarkable about the Commission’s proposal for a joint EU position is its choice of words. In UN usage, a “protocol” is an instrument that is binding under international law, and one that would have to be ratified by national parliaments for it to enter into effect. This kind of international agreement has been rejected by the US government for years, and it is out of the question that Congress would ratify such an agreement in the foreseeable future. The political camps in the US are so deeply divided over climate policy that even the wrong choice of words in Paris could cause the currently very ambitious Obama administration severe difficulties.

The European Commission is proposing a Paris “protocol” although this kind of international agreement has been rejected by the US government for years.

For the US, the outcome of the Paris negotiations should essentially amount to a “binding instrument”, but it should be designed in such a way that the President’s signature is sufficient and Congress does not have to give its approval.

What the Commission’s choice of words actually meant to signal was that in international climate policy, the EU is sticking to its goal of maximum long-term emission reductions. Its policy paper consistently refers to the scientific basis of EU ambition on mitigation. It sticks to the EU’s strategy at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit of focusing the UN climate talks on a science-based target that would be implemented by international law.

The Commission is aware of the gap between the emission reductions necessary to meet the two-degree upper limit and the expected overall level of ambition of climate pledges submitted to the UNFCCC this year. For this reason, it wants to establish a global review process for the INDCs under a new Paris agreement and suggests that as of 2020, talks should take place once every five years over whether and how governments can increase their mitigation pledges. The question is, is this a feasible approach, in view of what is achievable in a global context – and given the divisions on climate policy inside the EU?

Global climate policy after 2020: A fresh start

The aim of the Paris talks is to create a fresh start for the global climate regime. Industrialised countries are not solely and decisively responsible for this. The UN climate negotiations are intended to involve as many states as possible, and for the period after 2020, all the major emitters among developing countries are supposed to be on board. The new climate regime is also set to develop in successive stages after 2015, instead of being “set in stone” for a pre-defined period.

For these reasons, it has to contain mechanisms that push governments toward greater transparency in their national climate policies, that establish a process for monitoring and updating INDCs, and that give more attention to the concerns of those countries most affected by climate change. Most importantly, industrialised countries will bear great responsibility as providers of climate finance. These important points are part of the Commission’s proposal and underpin the EU’s role in helping make a new regime broadly acceptable.

Three concerns over the Commission’s blueprint

There are three main concerns regarding the Commission’s proposed blueprint for a deal in Paris, however. First, although the proposal to formally review governments’ mitigation pledges every five years might be a good model to increase ambition globally, it is poorly attuned to the delicate process of internal EU climate policy making. It means the EU would have to set an interim target for 2025. When one considers the polarisation in EU climate policy since 2010 – which is generally only overcome through tedious consensus-based decision-making by the 28 heads of state and government in the European Council – it is almost unthinkable that the governments of Central and Eastern Europe would be willing to consider short-term changes to climate targets within Europe.

By the 2009 Copenhagen conference at the very latest, it had become patently clear that a science-based approach to climate protection in the tradition of the Kyoto Protocol is not viable.

Second, if the EU entered into negotiations in Paris with the intention of trying to get a “protocol” passed, this would almost inevitably result in widespread disappointment with the final result and a perception of the EU as “loser” in the talks – largely independent of whatever detailed provisions an alternative legal instrument might contain.

Third, by the 2009 Copenhagen conference at the very latest, it had become patently clear that a science-based approach to climate protection in the tradition of the Kyoto Protocol is not viable. The Commission now proposes that those countries who offer a mitigation INDC should join the Paris Protocol. This would create a “climate protection club” of UNFCCC member countries. However, any binding tool under the UNFCCC eventually has to be signed by all 195 parties. Given that not only the US, but also China and India do not support such a protocol, the Comission’s proposal seems to be somewhat detached from reality.

The EU’s role before Paris

Like in Copenhagen in 2009, the EU will again face the challenge of balancing its role as host with its function of driving climate protection efforts forward. The host’s job is to facilitate a successful outcome of the conference by skillfully mediating between divergent interests. This may contradict the EU’s ambitions for the post-2020 climate regime.

As host, France in particular cannot represent, much less promote the EU’s interests. For progress on key points, it will be crucial for EU member states to work closely together and clarify the division of roles among the Commission, Luxembourg (which has just assumed the rotating EU Presidency), and France well in advance of the Paris conference. This will require intensive consultation among member states leading up to the adoption of an EU negotiating mandate (planned to be concluded by September).

Countries will need to decide whether they want to follow the Commission’s proposals for a global climate regime – which are relatively ambitious but offer little hope for consensus. They will have to decide too, to what extent they want to use these proposals as “bargaining chips” to persuade the US and others to compromise on certain points – which would require member states to be flexible enough to deal efficiently with unforeseen proposals presented during later stages of the negotiations.

The climate targets and measures envisioned by the EU and the Commission’s proposals for a Paris agreement may overlook the scope of regime change taking place at the global level, but they do contain key elements for a future agreement. The EU may yet succeed in achieving such an agreement if it can find the right balance between ambition and responsiveness, between firm commitment and internal flexibility. After all, COP21 in Paris is not only the end of the current UNFCCC negotiation cycle; it is also the starting point of another.

Editor’s Note

This is an abbreviated and updated version of an SWP policy brief published in May 2015. Susanne Dröge is head of the Global Issues Division and Oliver Geden is head of the EU/Europe Division at SWP (StiftungWissenschaft und Politik – German Institute for International and Security Affairs). Republished with permission.


  1. Giacomo Valentini says

    I strongly disagree with this article. The EU has all the interest to make strong negotiating proposals, since in a negotiation one seldom gets what one has initially demanded. Proposing a low-ambition, non-binding text guarantees that what comes out of Paris will be even less ambitious than that. Also, the article states: “However, any binding tool under the UNFCCC eventually has to be signed by all 195 parties.” The Kyoto Protocol has a separate membership and separate ratification process from the UNFCCC. A Paris Protocol can easily be devised to follow such a pattern.

  2. says

    There may be a scientific discovery showing increased carbon dioxide is causing no more than greening of the planet or a display of corruption like the release of e-mails showing climate scientists were cheating on their global warming data that came out in November 2009 before the Copenhagen meeting that may throw a wrench in the Paris conference November 30.

    All new climate data shows no influence of increased carbon dioxide on global warming. When will this nonsense cease and the world embarks on programs to uplift poor nations and stop this global fighting? Fossil fuels are the only economical fix to uplift poor nations and keep present living standards for developed nations.

    James H. Rust, Professor of nuclear engineering (ret. Georgia Tech)

    • says

      “carbon dioxide is causing no more than greening of the planet” which is why California and the Med’ basin are drying out?

      “a display of corruption like the release of e-mails showing climate scientists were cheating”
      The e-mails showed no such thing – unless one is deluded.

      “All new climate data shows no influence of increased carbon dioxide on global warming.” – only if you live in Wonderland – otherwise on planet earth there is most definitely a correlation and cause.

      “Fossil fuels are the only economical fix to uplift poor nations”
      Most poor nations tend to be in sunny locations: LCOEs for PV show they are the lowest cost form of generation (e.g. 5ecents/kWhr Med basin – even lower in the USA) – they kick coal or gas out of the market – with no subsidy needed in sunny locations & without the pollution that coal or gas causes.

      Perhaps you should stick to gardening or something like it Mr Rust – because it is clear that you have no clue with respect to global warming, its causes or indeed energy costs.

  3. John Kessels says

    Well thought out article. I agree with the author and if the EU proceeds with a goal of a Paris Protocol then it will result in another Copenhagen fiasco.

  4. Nichol Brummer says

    I agree it doesn’t make much sense to demand something from Obama that he cannot deliver, and then expect to use that demand as negotiating chip. We all know in advance that this chip has to fall. Going through those motions will just take time. Make sure to get this point clear well before Paris. It makes more sense to work on an achievable deal.

    Dropping the ‘scientific basis’ for the long term goals on climate action would be criminally stupid. It is important to set up a mechanism where it is clear the world needs to transition to a decarbonized economy. Zero emissions. Somewhere later in this century. And contributions of all countries should add up to move in that direction, with clear commitment, effort from all, and speed. The largest emitters of CO2 should make the first big steps, and set in motion the development of the new clean economy. INDCs are there to show who is planning what, in a way that they can be added up, to make clear how much more is necessary. That is where the science has to come in again.

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