Friday

26th Feb 2021

Opinion

EU climate diplomacy can make the difference

  • The EU has found common ground with China to preserve the 2015 Paris Agreement - despite an often challenging bilateral economic relationship (Photo: Yann Levy/350.org)

There is no other problem which tests the ability of countries to cooperate and to coordinate their responses like climate change.

For the European Union, climate change is also a test of the ability to act cohesively in the world.

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Europe has long been a leader in the international diplomacy of climate change, reflecting the demands of European citizens for a clean environment.

The Paris Agreement of 2015, delivered under the presidency of France, is in part a result of EU leadership.

But now, as the United States under Donald Trump abandons the Paris Agreement, denies the reality of climate change and behaves with unprecedented hostility towards EU partners and multilateralism in general, the share of the load that the EU must bear grows correspondingly heavier.

To examine how the EU could use diplomacy to strengthen climate action globally, we brought together climate negotiators from the European Commission and member states with academic experts on climate politics, policy and law.

The outcomes of this collective project highlight a number of key messages.

First, the unique capacity of the EU to influence international outcomes on climate change stems from the multi-dimensional nature of EU diplomacy.

This includes member states leveraging their diverse relationships with countries and communities around the world, an unparalleled network of diplomatic missions, the EU's standing as the leading global provider of overseas development assistance (which is increasingly focused on sustainable development), and the size of the EU as a trading bloc, enabling it to promote high environmental standards through multilateral and bilateral trade and investment agreements (the most recent of which are explicitly linked to implementation of the Paris Agreement).

But the EU can only take advantage of these strengths when member states give it the mandate to act ambitiously and in unison.

The effectiveness of EU climate diplomacy also depends on the credibility of internal EU climate action, so that we can continue to 'lead by example'.

The implementation of the Energy Union must be robust and must set the pathway for increasing levels of ambition.

Second, and relatedly, climate diplomacy today is pursued through an expanding array of forums, ranging from the UN Climate Convention to trade negotiations to the broader programme of work under the Sustainable Development Goals.

For the EU, relations with neighbours like the Western Balkans and the broader Mediterranean also provide opportunities to enhance cooperation on climate change.

Two imperatives stand out: to pursue a consistent message across these multiple tracks; and to develop linkages between complimentary programmes of activity to maximise impact and minimise duplication.

Bilateral relations are also vital.

For example, at the same time as the EU finds common ground with China to preserve the Paris Agreement, it must also promote climate action through an often challenging bilateral economic relationship.

Third, a strong negotiating stance rests on a political commitment that must be nurtured not taken for granted. For all that climate policy requires deep expertise, it cannot be left to technical experts alone.

Whole-economy transition

It is not simply a case of retrofitting economies with less polluting energy sources and shoring up defences against the effects of climate change. Rather, an effective response to climate change entails a whole-of-economy transformation.

This necessitates political decision-making and a political vision of the destination. The social element is fundamental to this, because a community consensus for strong climate action depends on prioritising socially just outcomes for workers, communities and regions.

The pursuit of a 'just transition' is not an optional progressive extra to climate policy, but key to its success.

To safeguard the politics that make ambitious climate diplomacy possible, we must engage a broad progressive front which encompasses concerned citizens, environmentalists, workers, and the businesses and investors pioneering the sustainable markets and products of the future.

Finally, progressive leadership on climate change can also help the European Union to re-engage with its citizens. Europeans have long been proud of the EU's high environmental standards and leadership in global environmental cooperation.

At this critical time, with climate change increasingly urgent and with reactionary, anti-science forces threatening processes of cooperation, the EU climate mission can reassert the common values and aspirations which Europeans share.

At the same time, an accelerated climate transition would bring material benefits, such as reduced pollution, lower dependence on energy imports and the ability of more households to independently produce and consume renewable energy.

Stephen Minas is an assistant professor at the School of Transnational Law, Peking University, China, and senior research fellow in the Transnational Law Institute at King's College London, UK. Vassilis Ntousas is the international relations policy advisor at the Foundation for European Progressive Studies, Belgium and together, they are the editors of the new collection of essays EU climate diplomacy - politics, law and negotiations

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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