The rise of climate change on the European Union agenda: 1988-2011

Brendan Moore |

When the European Council – the institution that sets the European Union’s agenda on broad, strategic issues[1] – published its Declaration on the Environment on December 3, 1988, climate change was mentioned briefly and in passing.[2] In 2009, the year of the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen, the topic’s salience had risen dramatically. In that year, climate change made up more than 80% of the references to the environment in the European Council’s publicly-available Conclusions, and more than one-tenth of all references to policy issues.

This estimate of climate change’s increasingly important role is possible because of data compiled by the EU Policy Agendas Project. The project’s researchers have analyzed the European Council’s Conclusions sentence-by-sentence from 1975 to 2012 to identify which policy issues are discussed and when.[3] This information is available in a public dataset[4], which gave me an exciting opportunity to explore how much attention the Council has given to climate change in the last three decades. This post retraces how I mobilized the EU Policy Agendas Project data – and added to it – to explore patterns in the Council’s attention to climate change since 1988.

First, some context: in the EU Policy Agendas dataset, climate change is considered a subtopic of the broader “Environment” policy topic.  Between 1975 and 2012, the environment garnered an average of around 4% of the Council’s attention.[5] Overall, 32% of the references to the environment in the Council’s Conclusions are categorized as related to climate change. However, this average masks significant year-to-year changes. For example, in the six years from 1988 to 1993, climate change made up only 5% of the Council’s references to the environment. In contrast, from 2006 to 2011, climate change made up 74% of environmental references.

Figure 1. Council Attention to the Environment, By Subtopic, 1975-2012 (1,679 Total Mentions). Source: Alexandrova et al. 2014.
Figure 1. Council attention to the environment, by subtopic, 1975-2012 (1,679 total mentions). Source: Alexandrova et al., 2014.

Climate change: international negotiations and EU climate policy

Although the EU Policy Agendas dataset distinguishes between climate change and other environmental issues, it does not include analysis of the specific climate-related topics that the European Council discusses. Therefore, as a next step, I analyzed all mentions of climate change in the dataset and organized them into three overall categories: general statements about climate change, statements about the international climate negotiations under the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and statements about European Union climate policy. Three examples of statements I placed in each category are given below in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Examples of European Council climate change statements categorized under general, international negotiations, and EU policy categories.
Figure 2. Examples of European Council climate change-related statements in three categories: general climate change, international climate negotiations, and EU climate policy.

So which of these three categories gained the most attention? Overall, the international negotiations under the UNFCCC garner almost 60% of the Council’s climate-related attention. The EU’s climate policies attract a further 25%, with 15% related to generic climate statements. Figure 4 below gives a historical perspective on these estimates (from 1997 to 2011). The first mention of climate change was in 1988 (not shown), but it did not become prominent on the Council’s agenda until after the international agreement on the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. This same pattern was repeated in relation to the 2009 Copenhagen Conference, explaining the large increase in references to the international negotiations during that year.

Figure 4. European Council attention to climate change topics by year. Author’s analysis based on Alexandrova et al., 2014.
Figure 3. European Council attention to climate change topics by year. Author’s analysis based on Alexandrova et al., 2014.

Which EU climate policy?

Finally, I wanted to explore which specific climate policies the Council discusses. In its 132 references to internal EU policy over the period 1988-2011, the Council focused on general references to policy (39%), the EU’s targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (22%) and the EU Emissions Trading System (20%). Other policies received 5% or less of the Council’s attention.

Figure 5. European Council attention to EU climate change policies, Author’s analysis based on Alexandrova et al., 2014.
Figure 4. European Council attention to EU climate change policies. Author’s analysis based on Alexandrova et al., 2014.


As I mentioned in the introduction, the data exploration presented above has a few limitations. I have looked at the basic share of attention to climate change, and have not attempted to explain why we see the patterns that we do. Although I did not have the time to do so, more detailed analysis could examine the reasons why these patterns of attention exist. I also limited the analysis to only the references that were coded as climate change-related in the EU Policy Agendas dataset. Some climate topics were categorized differently (for example, ‘the global carbon market’ was placed in the energy policy category[6]). A broader analysis could attempt to track Council attention to those climate-related issues that were categorized as a different policy topic.

What I have found is, however, quite interesting. Taken together, this analysis suggests that in the mid-2000s, climate change became the dominant environmental issue on the European Council agenda. Much of the Council’s attention focused on the international climate negotiations, but with increasing space for EU climate policies like the EU Emissions Trading System. Although the EU Agendas dataset stops in early 2012, climate change is still clearly on the Council’s agenda (as evidenced by the 23-24 October, 2014 Council Conclusions, where the EU’s 2030 climate and energy framework occupied more than half of the document). It remains to be seen whether climate change will continue to play this important role on the EU’s environmental policy agenda in the years to come.

[1] Peterson, John and Michael Shackleton. 2012. The institutions of the European Union. Oxford: Oxford University Press. See pages 43-67.

[2] European Council Conclusions, 2-3 December 1988, Annex I

[3] Alexandrova, Petya, Marcello Carammia, & Arco Timmermans. 2012. Policy punctuations and issue diversity on the European Council agenda. Policy Studies Journal, 40(1), 69–88.

[4] Alexandrova, Petya, Marcello Carammia, Sebastiaan Princen, and Arco Timmermans. 2014. Measuring the European Council agenda: Introducing a new approach and dataset. European Union Politics, 15(1): 152-167.

[5] Alexandrova, Carammia, & Timmermans, 2012, pg. 75.

[6] “The strengthening and extension of global carbon markets” (March 9, 2007) was categorized under energy policy.