Ten years ago, the EU stood firm in the face of a US pull-out and rallied the world to bring into force a rules-based regime for the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions, the Kyoto Protocol. It was an achievement that demonstrated the EU’s diplomatic clout, its commitment to multilateral solutions and an ability to broker complex deals in the United Nations.
“Kyoto, c’est l’Europe-puissance,” was the comment by Jacques Delors, a former European Commission president, and Kyoto certainly rates as one of the EU’s most important diplomatic achievements.
But it was more than that.
Kyoto resulted in a wave of legislative activity in the EU, culminating in the EU’s emissions-trading scheme (ETS). It also prompted other countries – plus states in the US and provinces in Canada – to establish market-based instruments to curb emissions (such as cap-and-trade systems) and to use regulatory tools, such as standards for energy efficiency and vehicle emissions.
A second wave of climate-friendly policies followed in the EU in 2008, when the EU adopted its ‘climate and energy package’. As a result, no international company can now ignore carbon constraints. Nor, for that matter, can airlines that use EU airports: they too will soon be subject to the ETS.
The way consumers, businesses and politicians perceive climate and energy issues has also been fundamentally altered. Most now realise that climate change is a defining issue of this century. Many also understand that the changes resulting from the first years of the Kyoto regime amount to no more than a first, modest step.
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And yet European leadership is now wavering. Member states and the European Parliament are hesitant about approving a unilateral target to reduce emissions by 30% by 2020 (the current target is 20%). If they heed the European Commission, they will accept that a stronger carbon constraint is necessary to drive green innovation – and also economically efficient. If they heed climate sceptics, Eurosceptics and laggards in the business community, the EU should stop leading the world on climate policy. Since the US and China are not willing to play ball, so the argument goes, the EU should return to ‘business as usual’.
The impact of such lobbying is becoming ever more evident in the words used by the EU’s leaders. Speaking at the UN’s High-Level Dialogue on Climate Change on 20 September, José Manuel Barroso, the Commission president, delivered an unambiguous message to the world: don’t count on Europe to lead once again.
By downplaying the significance of the Kyoto regime, he implicitly aligned the EU with those major emitters – such as the US, China and India – who reject binding caps on future emissions, in effect dismissing calls by the countries most vulnerable to climate change for a continuation of legally binding emissions targets when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.
“The question,” according to Barroso, “is not a second Kyoto commitment or not; the question is about creating a legal framework for all countries.” No one in Europe disagrees that that should be the long-term aim. But will a refusal to show leadership get us there?
One cannot at the same time pretend to “preserve the environmental integrity of Kyoto” and jettison the system of binding targets that constitutes the legal essence of the protocol.
This is not the time for EU environment ministers to bicker about whether the Union should show a “willingness to consider” or, rather, a “readiness to accept” a “possible” second commitment period – but that is what they probably will do when they meet on 10 October. At the UN’s climate-change conference in Durban, the EU should demonstrate solidarity with Africa and vulnerable states. It should work with them to isolate the US and China, and other countries unable or unwilling to shoulder their responsibilities within a multilateral regime.
How otherwise can it meet the EU’s constitutional commitment, under the Lisbon treaty, to work for the “sustainable development of the earth”? And how would non-leadership satisfy EU leaders’ intention, reiterated in the Berlin Declaration of 2007, “jointly to lead the way in energy policy and climate protection”?
Or is it the case that Europe’s belief in its ‘normative power’ – its ability to set standards of behaviour – has withered away in the face of the economic and financial crises?
Two years ago, Copenhagen became an embarrassing display of Europe’s new diplomatic impotence. Durban may become another embarrassment, this time displaying a loss of self-belief and principle.
Marc Pallemaerts is a professor of European environmental law at the University of Amsterdam and a senior fellow at the Institute for European Environmental Policy. He was the chief climate negotiator during Belgium’s presidency of the Council of Ministers in 2001.