Europe Should Bide Its Time on Climate Change

Ursula von der Leyen put forth an ambitious agenda to cut emissions, but the time may not be right for her plans.

A climate change protester walks near Parliament in London on Dec. 8, 2007.
A climate change protester walks near Parliament in London on Dec. 8, 2007. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Last week, the European Parliament confirmed Ursula von der Leyen as president of the European Commission. In an attempt to win the body’s support on the eve of the vote, von der Leyen outlined an ambitious agenda, including a promise to up the European Union’s ante on climate change by cutting emissions by “50, if not 55 percent” by 2030. This is a big jump compared with the current 40 percent target, but it came with a crucial caveat: The world would have to “move together”—in other words, the new target is conditional on similar moves from “other major economies.”

Indeed, the world is supposed to be moving together. As part of the Paris Agreement on climate change, struck in 2015, signatories are required to ratchet up their pledges to cut emissions at the end of 2020. There is much work to be done. Global emissions skyrocketed in 2018, with Europe alone among the major polluters bucking this trend.

With her remarks, von der Leyen is suggesting that she will use the EU’s power to nudge other major players along, but the EU needs to spend the currency of its global influence wisely. This was a lesson it learned at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen a decade ago, when a global agreement was struck among Brazil, China, India, South Africa, and the United States. The EU—which thought of itself as the climate leader—was sidelined.

The EU assumed that because it was right and virtuous, because it had cut pollution at home, and because it was first to place an ambitious new target on the table, others would inevitably follow. It tried to remake the world in its own image, based around clearly defined targets and timetables for reducing pollution, underpinned by sound science. But all it achieved was to render itself irrelevant.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the EU’s limited influence did not match its worthy goal of delivering a legally binding treaty. The architecture it proposed was unacceptable to the two veto powers—the United States and China—both of whom opposed top-down targets. Nor was this approach acceptable to India, which had emerged as a cogent voice for climate justice among the broader group of developing countries at the United Nations.

The EU was quick to learn that its reach exceeded its grasp. At the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa, in 2011, it deployed a new strategy. The EU conceded that legally binding targets were not realistic, but it insisted on a road map toward a new agreement by 2020. It forged alliances with the least developed countries and the small island states, exploiting different perspectives on climate justice between these parties and India. And it allied itself with the United States in calling for all countries to make some contribution, not just the rich ones, as preferred by China and India.

The EU’s recalibration allowed it to remain influential at the subsequent Paris Agreement negotiations in 2015. Although the overall architecture reflected U.S. interests and constraints, the EU was influential on the shape of so-called “ambition mechanism,” which is at the heart of the agreement. The world should take stock of progress, it insisted, every five years. Following that, new pledges would be required from all parties.

In many ways, the agreement was a triumph for EU-U.S. diplomacy—the United States paved the way for an agreement through its engagement with powerful countries such as China and India, and the EU brought the least developed and most vulnerable countries on board.

This experience speaks to today’s debate. The lessons for the EU are to use its limited influence wisely, to avoid wishful thinking, and to change tack in response to major developments. The United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement (which could come into effect by November 2020) is just such a development.

A U.S. withdrawal suggests that the timing for a new EU target, as required under the Paris Agreement, is wrong. The EU is already on track to halve emissions by 2030, so the only rationale for announcing a new target now would be to inject momentum into global efforts. But frustrating as it may be, with one veto player absent from the table, it is simply not possible to push things faster at this time. Other major emitters, such as India and China, will not move beyond their own self-interest while the United States is absent.

Instead of acting valiantly now, the EU should recommit to its current 40 percent target at the U.N. in 2020. In the background, it must prepare for the next realistic window of political opportunity by building a comprehensive plan.

The singular focus on targets—as if they were the only point of leverage—is misguided in any case. It is far more important for the EU to mainstream its climate goals into its broader economic statecraft. The EU remains central to global goods, services, capital, and currency markets, and it has a growing diplomatic presence overseas. It has a range of tools that could be deployed to drive global decarbonization, from trade and sanctions to sustainable finance to providing technical assistance to allies and helping to build resilience to climate impacts. One particularly important instrument that von der Leyen mentioned is a “carbon border tax,” which would leverage the power of the EU’s single market in service of climate action.

To fully take advantage of its strengths, however, perhaps requires a broader realignment in European thinking. The EU prefers to shape global norms and rules in cooperation with others using legal and technical instruments. It is a soft power—but in a world that has become more dangerous, fragmented, and uncertain. To protect the bloc and promote its interests, EU leaders may need to reacquaint themselves with the “relations of force on the international stage” and “intellectually reconcile themselves to power,” as the experts Alina Polyakova and Benjamin Haddad recently argued.

But even then, the EU’s influence is circumscribed. The United States remains the world’s pivotal power, and it is the EU’s most natural ally. It is only by acting in tandem with the United States that the EU can turn the tide on climate action. Equally, if the United States seeks to reenter the international climate regime, it will need the EU as its ally. Perhaps it was for this reason that von der Leyen called for renewed ambition from major economies by 2021 and not in 2020 as is required under the Paris Agreement. At any rate, she was wise to pause and to make the EU’s new pledge conditional—to do so otherwise would be to squander her influence.

Joseph Curtin is a senior fellow at the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin. He recently completed an Eisenhower Fellowship exploring prospects for EU-U.S. climate cooperation. Twitter: @jmcurtin

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