Europe risks losing its global leadership on climate change


Climate, Energy & Sustainability

The COP 20 conference in Lima should stand as a warning to Europe that its leading role in global climate negotiations is being eroded. That is a consequence of Europe’s diminishing global importance, but also of its inability, and perhaps will, to create alliances.

The EU is still the only player fighting for a really ambitious and legally binding global agreement that takes the 2ºC goal seriously and accepts the findings and recommendations of all the IPCC reports. In short, everything needed to get the right result at COP 21 in Paris.

Europe held together in Lima, in contrast to before, and is still the region that has been the most successful in determining climate policies, setting binding targets and showing real results through falling CO2 emissions and the rising share of renewables. The 2020 targets are impressive and important beyond Europe too.

The EU tends to misjudge its own strength in the world

But – and it is a big but – the EU tends to misjudge its own strength in the world. It has to abandon the idea that it is enough to “be the best” and stand as the moral beacon. It needs to increase its efforts to build strong alliances and that requires a climate policy focus that extends beyond CO2 reductions.

The U.S. and China have built a new political alliance, and as the two largest polluters they have unfortunately agreed not to commit themselves internationally to anything not already agreed upon at home. At the same time, polluters among the world’s emerging economies – including to some extent China – have hidden behind the protective G77 rhetoric that the rich countries are to blame and should commit to a special effort. On top of all this, the trend over the past 15 years has been against global agreements, notably in trade, and this is affecting the climate negotiations too. Yet the alternative would at best be regional climate change agreements.

The EU should arguably draw some obvious conclusions. The first is the building of alliances. A deal with Africa and with the world’s most vulnerable countries was reached in Durban, but it must now be re-established and enlarged to include countries in Latin American and Asia that really want an international agreement. COP 21 in Paris appears to be the last chance for a solid and effective global agreement, with the alternative being that China and the U.S., as the two big ones, set the agenda and decide on momentum. This would not be in the interest of the rest of the world.

Follow-up mechanisms will therefore be extremely important

A second EU conclusion should be that Europe must understand that climate adaptation has a major role to play. The EU must therefore be ready to speak loud and clear about the financial support it promised in Copenhagen. Yet in Lima it seemed as if this had been forgotten, and that financial aid for developing countries is not intricately connected to environmental and climate efforts.

The third, and most cumbersome, conclusion is that agreement in Paris will not prove as ambitious as it should be. Nor will it be as ambitious as we could agree on within the EU. Follow-up mechanisms will therefore be extremely important, making the task of ensuring that Paris doesn’t become the end of the line a vital one. The need will be for continued international negotiations, exchanges of experience, ever-greater global awareness and no let-up in the pressure for mankind’s largest transition project.

If we in the EU can draw these three conclusions in ample time before COP 21, we will have a chance to share our leadership with others. But if COP 21 is seen as merely a continuation of COP 20, we will be putting both our leadership and the world’s climate at risk.

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