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COP17: EU leadership diminished but still key to progress at Durban

24 November 2011
COP17: EU leadership diminished but still key to progress at Durban

Luc Bas, The Climate Group’s Director of European Programmes, examines the European Union’s negotiating position as it prepares for next week’s UN climate conference in Durban.

For a considerable period, the European Union could rightly claim to be a leader within the UN climate negotiating process. With the first mandatory carbon market, growing investment in energy policies and its comprehensive 2020 Energy and Climate Package, the EU has remained by far and away the most active player on emissions reductions.

The EU is also the only group that is close to respecting its Kyoto commitments. Despite all this the region has never really been able to impose its position effectively within the negotiations and now appears somewhat isolated.

Today the EU is confronted with a major issue, the future of the Kyoto Protocol.

While the EU has expressed an ‘openness’ to commit to a second Kyoto period in order to remain at the forefront of reducing emissions, it must balance this against real and perceived political and economic risks from going it alone as other Annex I countries withdraw from Kyoto. This challenge also offers an opportunity to regain it’s leadership.

The EU hopes to achieve balanced progress at COP17 in Durban on the ‘legal form’ of a broad agreement that encompasses both the Convention and Kyoto negotiating tracks. Its aim is to reach within a specific timeframe a comprehensive and legally binding framework engaging all. The EU’s view is that the Kyoto Protocol would continue to function during this transition.

Other priority issues include guaranteeing and improving the environmental integrity of land use and forestry rules and addressing the problem of surplus emission allowances (otherwise known as ‘hot air’). Improving and expanding so-called ‘flexibility mechanisms’, including sectoral carbon trading mechanisms, are also high on the EU’s agenda. 

The EU continues to emphasize the need to raise the overall level of ambition in Durban and close the mitigation gap to keep the global temperature increase below 2°C (the goal formally agreed in Cancun). Many voices in the EU (both a number of member states and important parts of civil society at large) have advocated for more EU ambition. This is not simply to demonstrate international leadership, but also to continue the race for a competitive European low carbon economy.

Important European Regional governments and over 70 big businesses from different sectors have called for an unconditional 30% reduction of GHG by 2020.

The major components of the Cancun Agreements now need to be operationalized in Durban.

Key elements for the EU are those related to transparency and tracking of commitments and actions, the operationalization of the Climate Technology Centre and Network, the Green Climate Fund and a well designed process for long term climate finance.

Beyond the main agenda items, the latest hot issue the EU will need to deal with in Durban is the inclusion of aviation in the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS) from January 1, 2012.

Although parties are rightfully demanding ambitious climate leadership from the EU in general, many have been harshly critical of the EU’s action to address aviation emissions. From the EU’s perspective this is seen as a contradiction, as it believes it cannot tackle emission reductions effectively if aviation is not comprehensively addressed as well. The EU also sees the initiative as an important means of generating significant financial flows that will also benefit climate action in developing countries.

In any case, it is clear that the EU needs a more dynamic negotiating approach to achieve its goals. This approach would clearly signal its strong ambition, respond better to the needs of friends and potential allies, while still championing the EU’s own core interests.

As the EU is totally dependent on imported fossil fuels, it is in its own interest to save energy, to develop renewable energies and position itself in global markets as a producer of performance clean-tech equipment.

The EU’s position can have a strong impact on developing nations in terms of low carbon development and resilience to climate change - it should provide the bridge between developing and industrialised nations. 

Further reading

For those interested in more analysis on the prospects for COP17, the following sources and are recommended.

Damian Ryan, Senior Policy Manager, The Climate Group, will also be writing news and analysis throughout COP17, and providing a more in-depth post-COP Briefing after the events. Keep up to date on our website and by following him on Twitter during COP17. 

You can also read about the US, India and China's positions ahead of Durban. 

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