Gennaio 27, 2021

Three things the EU should do at COP 26

I shall focus on EU strategies during the decision-making process leading to the Kyoto Protocol, which began in 1997, and in negotiations at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, held in 2009. This comparison shed lights on:

• the reasons why the EU reached its goal at Kyoto
• the reasons why Obama administration could take the lead in Copenhagen;
• how EU representatives should behave at the upcoming Conference of the Parties (Glasgow, November 2021).

As it is now well-known, the Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Emission reduction was actually the most divisive issues at that time. Both developed and developing countries entered negotiations in order to defend their emission rates, seen as fundamentally linked with economic growth.

The United States felt threatened by a decrease in global competitiveness. Against this backdrop, the US backed the full participation of developing countries in the definition of emission targets. Actually, poorer countries advocated for a long time their right to develop. Already at the 1995 COP in Berlin, a coalition of developing states argued that the most developed countries had a major responsibility for climate change, and, therefore, a more stringent obligation to reduce their emissions.

Meanwhile, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), traditionally one of the most progressive actor in climate change negotiations, pushed for the highest possible reduction in emissions. The EU also pushed for a higher percentage of greenhouse gas reduction. But, its ambitions strategies faced internal oppositions, with several member states contesting the subsidiarity principle, the then-limited funding for related measures, and the then-general focus on economics over ecology.

In such a heterogeneous environment, it was very difficult to reach a satisfying agreement for all parties. The EU itself found a compromise on its very negotiating position:

• it made concessions on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions;
• it agreed on implementing a mechanism allowing industrialised countries to earn ‘credits’ to finance related projects in developing states.

Changes of this kind contribute to solving the impasse. The EU helped to repositing the equilibria and, in this way, to make room for concessions and a shared agreement on more moderate terms.

Parties gathered at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference with the intention to extend the commitments of the Kyoto Protocol and sign a new pact on long-term actions. Even in this case, parties had different and conflicting interests. As usual, the most intense disagreements were on the idea of a single binding agreement (to be include in the UNFCCC and in the Kyoto Protocol).

Since the beginning, the EU supported the idea of a single agreement as a way to build a large coalition. Once again, AOSIS advocated more progressive terms. Yet, the majority of the developing states was against this constraint. China and India fought all hypotheses affecting their emission levels.

The impasse replicated that in Kyoto. For this reason, the EU tried to change some fundamental terms of the negotiation in order to reach a positive outcome. Specifically,

• emission reduction for both developed and developing countries;
• binding targets;
• funds for developing countries.

The main goal was that of persuading China and India – the two driving forces of developing countries – to find an acceptable final agreement. Yet, for both China and India, it was imperative to reach an agreement nonbinding actions. EU efforts proved ineffective.

On top of this, if compared to other countries, at that time the EU was in a weak bargaining position. Because of its relatively good results in emission reductions, it was recognized as a self-interested negotiator. Moreover, the EU did not really engage with like-minded countries, such as AOSIS. 

It is against this backdrop that the US could take the lead of the process. Alike India and China, the US lobbied against legally binding reductions. The result was a wishy-washy compromise, the Copenhagen Agreement.

If taken together, these examples show that at COP 26:

1. In a world marked by an increasing attention to climate change, and where China is also taking the lead of renewable energy production, the EU should confirm its role as one of the most progressive actors in the fight against climate change.

2. The EU should align supranational objectives with the specific goals of EU member states.

3. The EU should devote a lot of energy in anticipating both the most realistic negotiating structure and how other parties will perceive its moves during negotiations.



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About Federica Cagnoli

Federica Cagnoli

Federica Cagnoli graduated in International and Diplomatic Science from the University of Genoa. During these studies, she spent a period of research at University College Cork, and she participated in a research project in an Italian study centre. She is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in European and Global Studies at the University of Padua, where she is analysing how designing and managing the activities related to decision-making processes, in particular from the EU perspective. Her research interests focus on environmental issues, European public policies and forms of political participation.

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