Restoring EU Leadership

3 October 2009

Rewind 10 months to December 2008: in Poznan, negotiators prepare for another day of working group discussions. Meanwhile the rest of the continent is intently watching Brussels, where European leaders make the big political decisions on the EU’s 2020 climate package.

Now fast-forward one year to December 2009: it’s mid-session in the climate talks in Copenhagen and European leaders are again meeting in Brussels. What sort of leadership can we expect?

Europe still talks a good game on climate change and headlines their place at the head of the Annex I pack. But the cracks in confidence in the EU’s leadership have turned into chasms of concern as ambition has weakened.

At a moment when the vast majority of countries want a strong agreement but the negotiations remain mired in distrust and distraction, ECO suggests that European delegates consider these steps toward restoring EU climate leadership.

Step one is to communicate a compelling vision of what success looks like at Copenhagen: a vision based on staying as far as possible below 2oC through a global transition to low carbon economies and sustainable development for all.

Step two is to demonstrate that actions lead to success. That means moving onto new ground with mitigation and finance proposals that reflect scientific necessity rather than political expediency, and not simply waiting to see what the others will do first.

Step three is to shift the dynamic of the negotiations from ‘after you’  to ‘follow me’ – to build an “ambition coalition” of countries willing to take round after round of stronger action as others take steps for action and support. Together, ambition and action will lead to success.

The EU showed real leadership when it first tabled its 20%-30% target for emissions reductions below 1990 levels by 2020 – the first major emitter to make a unilateral agreement of this kind. It is ahead of most Annex I parties in its willingness to negotiate seriously on climate finance. But there are some problems.

• Rather than preparing for success by setting out a plan to move to 30%, many European countries seem to be quietly hoping that they can stick to 20% and avoid another battle with carbon polluting industries.

• Rather than sending a strong signal that Europe is serious about building a low carbon economy at home, it has proposed achieving much of its target through land use loopholes and cheap international offsets.

• Rather than recognising the need for additional, innovative and sustained public financing flows to help ambitious developing countries transform their economies and adapt to climate change in the coming decades, it is busy lowering expectations of Europe’s “fair share” of the bill.

It’s still not too late to turn this around. The economic crisis has created an opportunity.

Europe’s emissions have fallen to a point where achieving a 30% reduction is no more difficult or costly than 20% was expected to be when leaders signed on the dotted line. In fact, by adopting more ambitious targets, Europe can ensure that the economic recovery is built on low carbon investment rather than a return to business as usual.

Furthermore, if the EU really wants to reaffirm its role as a climate change leader, it will move toward a 40% reduction target. Not only is it the right economic pathway for Europe, it is also the most credible political strategy for success at Copenhagen.

[Article published in Climate Action Network’s Eco Newspaper, Oct. 2, 2009 from Bangkok, Thailand UNFCCC negotiationsfull PDF version here]

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