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Climate Policy after the Crisis: From Environment to Energy

The combined effects of the financial and economic crisis starting in 2008 and the fiasco of the 2009 Copenhagen climate negotiation have led to a gradual re-framing of climate change from an environmental to an energy issue. As I detail below, this re-framing has happened in subtle, and not-so-subtle ways, from changes in political rhetoric to institutional shifts in member states and most recently at EU level. But what do these shifts mean for climate policy going forward, particularly with a view to mainstreaming climate policy in other key policy areas such as transport and biodiversity?

When the EU negotiated its 2020 Climate and Energy Package between 2007 and 2009, environmental visions of ecological modernisation—where the environment takes centre stage alongside economic improvements—drove the discussion.[1] The EU, both looking outward to assert international leadership and looking inward to build a new raison d’être, sought to make climate change one of its signature issues in the 21st century.[2] While these discussions led to some remarkable internal policy progress (such as burden sharing among the EU member states, and the 2020 targets), they ultimately fell short of their own ambitions in Copenhagen in 2009, where contrary to its own expectations, the EU found itself sidelined rather than in a leadership position and had to observe the breakdown of what many hoped would be a turning point in international climate policy.

By the time of the Copenhagen summit, the international financial crisis was firmly hitting the economy around Europe and the pressure built on political leaders to attend to these increasingly pressing economical issues. Struggling with high unemployment rates and dwindling budgets, it became less and less politically viable to frame climate change as an environmental policy issue. Whereas former Commission President José Manuel Barroso claimed in 2007 that “We can say to the rest of the world, Europe is taking the lead, you should join us in fighting climate change”, political rhetoric has diversified since then. As a result, the EU became more inward looking, and leaders have more and more emphasised climate change policy as a driver of energy security and economic activity. Ongoing tensions with Russia and concerns over energy imports, as well as the idea of an ‘Energy Union’ put firmly on the agenda by Donald Tusk, president elect of the European Council, as well as the new Commission, strengthened this approach.

The rhetorical re-framing of climate change has also morphed into tangible, institutional shifts. One way in which this happened is by moving institutional responsibility for climate change from its traditional environmental base to energy. For example, in 2008, the UK created its Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) with an explicit aim to connect the two issues[3], and in 2014 Germany’s Energiewende (national shift to renewable energy) was put under the oversight of the Ministry of Economics and Energy, where it had previously been dealt with by the Environment Ministry. Similar shifts are happening at EU level: whereas José Manuel Barroso created a separate Directorate-General (DG) for climate change and a dedicated commissioner in 2010, in part to signal leadership and seriousness on the issue, the new Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has now put climate and energy under the oversight of a single commissioner – but not without resistance from members of the European Parliament and key environmental groups. As a result, at EU level, responsibility for climate change has migrated from the environment commissioner to a combined climate and energy portfolio – a move that had already been discussed back in 2009.

But what do these changes mean for climate policy going forward? On the one hand, climate-turned-energy policy may be an attempt of rescuing the climate issue in a world where addressing environmental issues has become less popular given pressing economic concerns. Furthermore, although much has been said about ‘mainstreaming’ climate concerns into other policy areas, the extent to which this has happened has of course been the matter of much debate.[4] On the other hand, this re-framing may also make climate change policy increasingly narrow and perhaps take attention away from other areas, such as climate change impacts on biodiversity and adaptation policy. As much of the low-hanging fruit has been picked, other policy sectors such as transport are becoming increasingly relevant to address climate change—but the question remains whether an energy policy framework for climate change will provide the necessary breadth to tackle related challenges effectively.

Correction – please note: Prof. Tom Delreux (@tomdelreux) has kindly pointed out to me that while there is now a single commissioner for climate and energy, DG Energy and DG Clima remain separate DGs (both reporting to the same commissioner). I have updated the post accordingly.


[1] Jordan, A., Huitema, D., van Asselt, H., Rayner, T., & Berkhout, F. (Eds.). (2010). Climate change policy in the European Union: confronting the dilemmas of mitigation and adaptation? Cambridge University Press, p. 75

[2] Lenschow, A., & Sprungk, C. (2010). The myth of a green Europe. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, 48(1), 133-154.

[3] Rogers-Hayden, T., Hatton, F., & Lorenzoni, I. (2011). ‘Energy security’ and ‘climate change’: Constructing UK energy discursive realities. Global Environmental Change, 21(1), 134-142.

[4] Brouwer, S., Rayner, T., & Huitema, D. (2013). Mainstreaming climate policy. The case of climate adaptation and the implementation of EU water policy. Environment and Planning C, 31(1), 134-153.



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