Does the European Commission’s Climate Change Department Make a Difference?

Jonas Schoenefeld |

In my earlier blog post last week,[1] I argued that the creation of DG Clima—the European Commission’s climate change department—was a conscious political choice by Commission President Barroso in 2009. At the time, commentators and policy-makers disagreed on the potential impact of DG Clima on climate policy: some, such as Professor Reinhilde Veugelers from the Bruegel think tank argued that the creation of DG Clima would underline the EU’s seriousness on climate change and facilitate climate policy integration and coordination.[2] In contrast, Green MEP Claude Turmes expressed concern that DG Clima could lock in market-based approaches to climate policy and thereby shut out other policy tools and that it could weaken DG Environment.[3] More than four years after DG Clima’s creation, I seek to take stock of the policy impact of DG Clima. I argue that DG Clima matters for EU climate policy, but that this influence stems more from Commissioner Connie Hedegaard’s influence in domestic and international arenas than from structural factors.

How DG Clima has changed climate policy-making within the European Commission

The creation of DG Clima has effectively moved climate policy decisions ‘upward’ in the hierarchy of the Commission.[4] A Commission official I interviewed in 2013 stressed that compared to the period before 2009, the work of Commission officials in the DG has become more closely interlinked with the cabinet and the Commissioner—which is good, because it means more instant political feedback, but can also be challenging.

Second, the creation of DG Clima enabled the Commission’s climate change team to attract more administrative resources. As that same Commission official explained, DG Clima started with about 60 staff in 2010, and grew to about 200 by 2013. The person stressed “I don’t know if that would’ve been possible in a different configuration, so being part of DG Environment or even being part of DG Energy.” As I mentioned in my earlier post, DG Clima also moved to a new building. This geographical separation probably means that officials forge fewer personal ties by meeting informally, thus formalizing and reducing interaction with DG Environment down the road.

DG Clima participates in all classic stages of the policy process, including agenda setting, legislative proposals and brokering, policy implementation and external representation. In terms of agenda setting, the Commission official stressed that simply having a Commissioner helps enormously to keep climate change high on the political agenda.

In terms of legislative proposals, the recent negotiations on the 2030 climate and energy framework show that having a climate commissioner probably helped to secure more ambitious targets. For instance, Hedegaard pushed for a binding renewable energy target (now proposed at 27%) until 2030, although the target has turned out lower than a possibly 40% target discussed earlier.[5] In addition, she defended the 40% carbon dioxide emissions target against her sceptical colleagues from the industry and energy departments.[6] Similarly, Commissioner Hedegaard made a key difference to encourage climate policy mainstreaming through the 2014-2020 EU budget negotiations. Facing fierce opposition from the EU’s Energy Commissioner Oettinger, Hedegaard helped set aside 20% of the EU budget for climate-related spending;[7] Oettinger had wanted no more than 10%.[8] In line with these examples, representatives from an environmental organization, which is active in Brussels, confirmed that “proposals were more ambitious under her rule.”[9] However, interview evidence suggests that Hedegaard’s ability to set aside funds for climate purposes may have come at the expense of other environmental policy areas.

DG Clima’s impact on policy implementation—a key focus area of the last and the current environmental action programmes[10] has yet to fully crystallize. Knowledge to date remains limited, as research on climate policy ‘mainstreaming’ is only emerging.[11] While some scholars have speculated that DG Clima could make a difference with regard to mainstreaming adaptation policy in the European Union,[12] early evidence suggests that the overall level of climate policy mainstreaming is too low in the EU.[13] However, given what little we know about climate policy integration, it is probably too soon to evaluate the precise role of DG Clima.

DG Clima and international climate negotiations

Commentators continue to disagree about the external policy influence of DG Clima. According to one official I interviewed, impacts on international negotiations where the Commission represents the EU have been minimal. In addition, this official stressed that in the Rio+20 negotiations, it was sometimes a disadvantage to have officials from DG Clima and DG Environment, because in many smaller countries, the same people deal with these two resorts. In contrast, Delia Villagrasa from the European Climate Foundation remarked that “Externally it’s made a difference. Hedegaard has been very good at interacting with developing countries, she is seen as an honest broker. She’s very clear and very open.”[14] Others agree, arguing that “[t]he new structure for DG Clim[a] […] has raised the profile of the role played by the Commission during international climate change negotiations.”[15] In sum, although the reach of DG Clima has grown with increasing resources, the new structure may make coordination in international settings somewhat more challenging. However, Connie Hedegaard’s good standing and her personal negotiating skills appear to be assets in international negotiations.

Overall, the international impact of DG Clima thus hinges more on Hedegaard’s personality than on her structural role within the commission. Interview evidence suggests that due to her prior climate policy experience, she engaged quickly and forcefully when taking office. This is probably because she is “almost an international celebrity.”[16] Before her hosting the 2009 Copenhagen summit, Hedegaard was named one of the world’s most influential people by Time Magazine.[17] As the Commission official remarked, “She’s very assertive, you also know that in the Commission, we have the Lisbon Treaty, speaking with one voice and it is true that very often, that voice is her voice.” Not every Commissioner has such qualities. In sum, Hedegaard exploits synergies between her own experience, status and knowledge and the resources allocated to her at the EC.

Looking forward

Writing this post, I found it somewhat surprising how little we know about the Commission’s new climate change department. There is clearly much room for more detailed and rigorous empirical analysis than I could provide here. Early and partially anecdotal evidence suggest that DG Clima does influence policy in domestic and international arenas. However, more work needs to be done to separate structural impacts from the influence of individuals, such as Commissioner Hedegaard. It is likely that the emerging literature on climate policy integration will have much to say on the impact of this new administrative structure.




[4] Egeberg, M. (2012). How bureaucratic structure matters: An organizational perspective. In J. Pierre, & B. G. Peters (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of public administration (pp. 157-168). London: SAGE.





[9] Personal communication, 20 April 2013.


[11] Adelle, C., & Russel, D. (2013). Climate policy integration: A case of déjà vu? Environmental Policy and Governance, 23(1), 1-12.

[12] Rayner, T. & Jordan, A. (2012). “Governing climate change: The challenge of mitigating and adapting in a warming world.” In Dauvergne, P. (Ed.), Handbook of Global Environmental Politics, Second Edition. Edward Elgar Publishing.



[15] 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.

[16] Enserink, M. (2009). European Union selects unknown for top science post. Science, 326(5958), 1331-1331.