The Politics of the Rise of DG Climate Action

Jonas Schoenefeld |

In 2009, Commission President Barroso created a new Directorate-General for Climate Action (DG Clima) in the European Commission (EC). This decision was a deliberate political choice following considerable controversy at the time. With European Elections around the corner, and now 28 Commissioners, we may yet again see a re-shuffle of Commission departments. When debating the future of climate change policy in the European Union, this historical precedent will likely shape the alternatives available to the next Commission President.

The rise of DG Clima can be understood in the context of a general enlargement of the College of Commissioners following the accession of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 and the persistent one-commissioner-per-member-state-rule.[1] President Barroso, once confirmed for a second mandate in 2009, thus had to define jobs for 26 Commissioners (Pres. Barroso being the 27th Commissioner). The ensuing decisions were intensely political, because they addressed the balance of power in terms of substantive portfolios.[2] In addition, the EU aspired to a leadership role in the international climate change policy negotiations in the run up to COP 15 in Copenhagen, where it hoped to secure a follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol. As the EC’s President-elect, Barroso had four politically viable options to address climate change institutionally: (1) house climate change in a unit within DG Environment, as before; (2) form a new DG for energy and climate change; (3) create a separate climate DG; or (4) convene a task force directly attached to the President.[3]

Discussions about a dedicated climate change DG were first reported in late September 2008, when it became clear that “there was significant political momentum behind the idea of a climate Commissioner.”[4] However, a month later, while announcing the creation of a new DG for Energy, Barroso denied that climate change would get a dedicated DG.[5],[6] As internal Commission discussions progressed, a merger of climate with DG Energy was put on the table,[7] which provoked concern among a group of members of the European Parliament (MEPs). In a letter to Barroso, they wrote in May 2009 that

“[…] we are astonished and not a little alarmed at the suggestion that a new Commission Directorate General for Energy and Climate Change might be established. Climate policies require a transversal and sustainable approach, looking at industrial emissions, transport, energy, buildings, agriculture, development and foreign policy, and we feel that having a Directorate General responsible for both energy and climate would not be best placed to deliver such a horizontal approach. To the contrary there is a risk that short-term economic interest would interfere and conflict with the aim of designing effective and sustainable climate policies. In addition, we are at a crucial point in time, with less than eight months to deliver on the Bali Action Plan and achieve international agreement in Copenhagen. Internal speculation over administrative structures could be highly damaging to EU preparedness and performance in the negotiation process.”[8]

As this quote shows, reshuffling portfolios could lead to tangible political effects, and it appears that such arguments precipitated change. By fall 2009, the Commission had backed away from option two (energy and climate DG), but options one (climate change addressed within DG Environment), three (separate climate DG) and four (presidential task force) were still on the table. Proof that the discussions were ongoing in late 2009 can be found in an exchange in European Voice: Arguing that the EC had originally gotten the idea to create a climate change DG from the Bruegel think-tank, Green MEP Turmes argued for option one (climate within DG Environment), because a separate climate DG would weaken DG Environment and limit the EU’s ability to reach beyond established market-based solutions to climate change.[9] In contrast, Professor Reinhilde Veugelers from the Bruegel think tank argued that a dedicated climate change commissioner would highlight EU priority on climate change, drive innovation, and enable cross-sectoral ‘mainstreaming’ of climate policy.[10] In sum, arguments centered on three points: (1) raising the profile of climate change in domestic and international arenas by creating a new administrative structure to show EU priority; (2) the need for cross-cutting climate policy mainstreaming; and (3) possible effects of the creation of a climate change directorate-general on DG Environment.

Following this controversy, the final decision to create DG Clima came on November 24 2009,[11] but simultaneous mergers of other DGs indicate that creating DG Clima was political and did not merely reflect an institutional necessity to squeeze out more portfolios.[12],[13] On the same day, Denmark nominated Connie Hedegaard, who was about to chair the Copenhagen climate summit, as their Commissioner.[14] President Barroso confirmed her appointment as the EU’s first climate commissioner three days later.[15] Hedegaard’s new mandate entailed to (1) “promote the development and demonstration of low carbon and adaptation technologies”; (2) “develop a strong science and economic base for our climate policy”; and (3) exercise “cross-cutting responsibility for developing adaptation to climate change inside the EU and for working with other Commissioners to ensure that an appropriate climate dimension is present in all Community policies.”[16]

President Barroso also explained that DG Clima would be created from existing DG Environment units. When I visited DG Clima in summer 2011, I experienced the ‘cocoon phase’ of an emerging DG, as it was still housed in temporary offices in DG Environment. By my next visit in autumn 2012, DG Clima had relocated to another building down the road. DG Clima’s emergence from DG Environment makes it likely that DG Clima retained much of the ‘administrative culture’ from DG Environment.[17] Considering that Jos Delbeke, who had risen from Head of Unit to Director for climate change and eventually Deputy-Director General in DG Environment was appointed Director-General of DG Clima[18] corroborates this argument. His appointment likely provided for a high level of leadership continuity regarding work culture and DG identity, especially because of Hedegaard’s newcomer status to the Commission.

Taken together, the creation of DG Clima is thus the product of a very specific set of political circumstances at the time. These include the EU member states’ inability to reduce the size of the College, but also functional considerations over climate policy mainstreaming at a time when climate change loomed large on international political agendas and the EU wanted to show international leadership. To what extent these goals have materialized and how DG Clima impacts policy will be the topic of my next blog post.

[1] Quinlan, 2012; Available at

[2] Barnes, P. M. (2011). The role of the Commission of the European Union: Creating external coherence from internal diversity. In R. Wurzel, & J. Connelly (Eds.), The European Union as a leader in international climate change politics (pp. 41-57). London; New York: Routledge.

[3] Interview with EC Official, 19 April 2013

[4] ENDS Europe. (2008). EU could get dedicated climate Commissioner. ENDS Europe REPORT, Retrieved 04/22, 2013, from

[5] Platts EU Energy. (2008). EC to create separate energy directorate. Platts EU Energy, Retrieved 04/22, 2013, from

[6] Pop, V. (2008). Barroso to create new energy directorate. EUobserver, Retrieved 04/22, 2013, from

[7] ENDS Europe. (2009b). New energy DG plan outlined. ENDS Europe REPORT, Retrieved 04/22, 2013, from










[17] Cini, M. (2000). Administrative culture in the European Commission: The cases of competition and environment. In N. Nugent (Ed.), At the heart of the Union: Studies of the European Commission (pp. 73-90). Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: MacMillan Press; St. Martin’s Press.