EU facilitates Paris Agreement, but economic concerns linger

Paul Tobin, Charlotte Burns |

In April 2015, we wrote a post for this series about the then forthcoming Paris climate talks. We noted how the new Juncker European Commission appeared to give a lower priority to climate change and was emphasising economic growth over other concerns, such as the environment. The post asked whether austerity would influence the EU’s position at the Paris climate talks, or even the outcome of the conference itself. So what was the outcome? And was the EU hamstrung by its commitment to austerity?

The Paris Conference

The Paris Conference of the Parties (COP) was the UN’s 21st annual climate gathering. It brought together 194 states to find a means of limiting climate change, and also adapting to its worst impacts. Looming large over the Paris COP was the failure in Copenhagen six years previously. There, a top-down approach had seen most states, and the EU, marginalised, whilst the USA and emerging economies, such as China, thrashed out an unambitious document that was never agreed. The EU struggled to make any impression at the Copenhagen conference, despite being the de facto hosts. While opinion varies as to whether the Paris Agreement will do enough to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, one thing appears to be agreed: the conference was a diplomatic success, if not yet a climatic one.

There are arguably five key elements to the new Paris Agreement. Most crucially, a long-term goal of achieving net zero emissions has been established, providing a path away from fossil fuels in the long-term. Here, a maximum temperature increase of 1.5°C, rather than the previously mooted 2°C, is a clear sign of ambition. Second, there is a commitment that each state will reassess and strengthen their climate ambition every five years; a crucial step for incrementally ‘ratcheting up’ ambition in the medium-term. Third, an emphasis upon enhanced transparency has been stipulated, which should aid the monitoring and reduction of emissions. Fourth, adaptation – adjusting to the impacts of climate change, which particularly threaten the developing world – is a central pillar of the new agreement. However, questions remain over the small reference to compensating for ‘loss and damage’ caused by climate change, with the USA particularly keen to avoid future liability. Finally, there is a promise to increase the climate finance for mitigation and adaptation in developing states.

The role of the EU in Paris

Despite concerns over the impact of austerity upon European ambition, it was a broadly positive performance from the EU. The French, led by former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, proved hugely effective facilitators. Inviting world leaders to attend the start of the conference, for the first time, was an astute manoeuvre. This leadership came despite the austerity measures currently faced by France, with President Hollande identifying the conference as an opportunity to boost his ailing poll ratings. France perhaps also benefitted from increased international goodwill, following the recent horrifying attacks in Paris. More broadly, the EU’s leadership in co-creating a ‘High Ambition Coalition’ – initially comprising the EU and 79 African, Caribbean and Pacific states before expanding still further – established a small bridge between developed and developing states. This example demonstrates the importance of the EU’s capacity for soft, diplomatic power, which is likely to become more important as the EU’s share of global emissions continues to drop. Finally, the efforts of the EU to push for a 1.5°C, rather than 2°C, maximum temperature increase were an unexpected positive at the conference.

However, at times, the EU also prioritised its own domestic priorities over global climate objectives, primarily due to economic concerns, thus weakening its leadership status. The apparent efforts of the EU to block the encouragement of technology transfers to developing states revealed the EU’s desire to protect its own corporations. The EU also won activists’ ‘Fossil of the Day’ prize for biggest obstacle to ambition twice on the 10th December. Here, Poland was singled out for vetoing the word ‘decarbonisation’ within the agreement, with the EU following suit. Poland’s desire to continue the exploitation of its domestic brown coal explains this stance, with the EU wary of ignoring the priorities of one of its poorer members. As such, while the EU was an effective facilitator, it cannot be seen as a white knight in global climate mitigation efforts.

Next steps

The EU performed reasonably effectively in Paris by pushing for higher targets and facilitating dialogue between key states. Yet, the bloc also failed to escape the context of its domestic financial difficulties at times, ensuring that it did not reclaim its past identity as a global climate pioneer. The EU has shown itself to be an effective facilitator on home turf, but it will need to maintain its strong performance at next year’s COP-22 in Morocco, where there will be renewed confidence in the UN’s climate model. If the EU is to be seen as a climate leader once more, it will need to ensure that the new targets it sets every five years, as required by the Paris Agreement, are ambitious enough to ratchet up ambition in other states, too.