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FEATURE: The EU’s balancing act in Doha

The EU played a clever game at the climate talks in South Africa last year, but faces a difficult task this year in Doha. Will Connie Hedegaard, the EU Commissioner for Climate Change, be able to hold the progressive alliance together, and build momentum for a global deal in 2015? Or will the talks end once more in recrimination between developed and developing countries?

Important lessons were learned from the failure of Copenhagen about the need for a broad-based alliance to keep climate talks moving forward. In Durban, the EU cooperated with a carefully built-up group of countries within the so-called Cartagena Dialogue, comprising countries with a relatively progressive agenda: Least Developed Countries, Australia, EU states, small island states, and African and Latin-American countries. Being part of this group ensured that the EU could not be excluded from the inner circle of the negotiations as happened at Copenhagen in 2009. Together, pressure was exerted on the US and emerging economies to agree a roadmap for negotiations on a new international agreement, to be concluded in 2015 with emission reduction commitments starting from 2020.

To add extra pressure, the EU made its participation in a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, starting from 2013 onwards, conditional to agreement on the roadmap. Extending the Protocol was an explicit demand from the emerging economies, who are classified as developing countries under the Kyoto Protocol, and therefore exempted from reduction commitments. According to them, the EU signing up to a ‘continuation of Kyoto’ would testify to it taking seriously the idea of richer countries with a large historic carbon footprint leading by example. The EU, however, refused to accept this demand without obtaining consent to the roadmap, a strategy that worked.

In the year since Durban, cracks have appeared in the EU’s global alliance. Connie Hedegaard has picked too many fights. The EU aroused outright anger in the US, China, and others by including all flights from and to Europe in its emissions trading scheme. It irritated Russia and Ukraine by announcing it would ban their Kyoto surplus emissions from the European carbon market. And relationships have been strained with developing countries who ask the EU to step up its mitigation and climate finance efforts.

The recent announcement made by the European Commission to stop the clock by one year on the tricky question of aviation has tempered the degree of outright hostility from some countries toward the EU. However, a key question continues to be how the EU will answer its traditional allies in Doha when they ask the EU to step up its effort by shortening the second commitment period deadline to 2017/18 or by increasing the reduction in emissions. Ignoring their demands may make them more receptive to the rhetoric of China and India regarding equity in the climate change regime and the historic responsibility of the West. This in turn may jeopardise the EU’s internal support for a climate change policy which puts EU industry at a competitive disadvantage. The EU thus risks losing both its traditional allies as well as its domestic support.

From a tactical point of view, the challenge will be to offer as little as possible now, so as to be ready for a big push in 2015, but to maintain credibility and momentum. From this perspective, the move to include international flights in the EU’s emissions trading scheme was rather aggressive, but at least demonstrated that the EU does not shy away from using hard power to defend its climate agenda. In the longer-term, this could make it a more credible negotiator. The EU is now able more realistically to threaten penalising imported goods from countries that do not have a carbon constraint. It could also offer to expand options for international carbon offset projects in developing countries and to expand its carbon market to even more sectors. These are perhaps more realistic options than the EU as a whole, or individual EU member states, taking up a steeper reduction effort or providing more climate finance.


Louise van Schaik is Senior Research Fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’. This commentary builds upon a recent report by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) and Overseas Development Institute (ODI) on the EU and the progressive alliance negotiating in Durban.

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