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Can the EU become the next World Climate Leader?

19 December, 2016
Lou Del Bello

Migration, political and financial crises threaten the European Union’s very existence. But the destabilised political landscape after the US elections is an opportunity for the EU to lead by example and show leadership. Pushing forwards on pan-European energy transition and trade partnerships with China will be key to ensuring implementation of the Paris Agreement.

The European Union is facing multiple crises that could threaten its very existence. Migration, financial turmoil in the Eurozone, and the UK’s withdrawal from the bloc would all be enough on their own to cause Brussels a headache. Together, they are shaking the EU to its core.

The fight against climate change provides a beacon of hope in this bleak political landscape. Under the climate action umbrella, the EU is uniting member states in pursuing the ambitious goal to reduce emissions by up to 95% below 1990 levels by 2050.

At a time when the Paris Agreement could be at risk, should the US decide to obstruct it, the EU has the potential to lead by example. However, experts say that real progress can only be achieved if climate action is weaved into the EU's political fabric; it is not enough to address the issue separately within individual sectors, such as energy security or infrastructural development.

A new energy agenda for the European Union

The latest building block for a pan-European clean energy transition is the 'winter package', a set of proposed measures to organise the distribution of energy across the continent, with a focus on clean sources.

"It is a comprehensive energy and climate agenda, and I think it is an indication of how Europe is taking forward the opportunities that come from this crisis," says Karsten Neuhoff, head of climate policy at the German Institute for Economic Research. "[The plan is] trying to integrate different aspects, addressing the energy security concerns of Eastern European countries, together with the sustainability concerns of some Western European countries." The reforms play out while the EU tries to reduce the cost of energy services and create more jobs.

Neuhoff believes that a clear pathway to decarbonisation will eventually become mainstream in most sectors, including those connected to building performance and the development of better materials. "I think that the big benefit of doing this at a European scale is that we can bring together different interest groups and a broader set of perspectives," he says.

Although the package has been heavily criticized for regulating the dispatch of energy to the grid in a way that could promote fossil fuels over renewables, Neuhoff maintains it provides a healthy balance between integrating more solar and wind into the grid and addressing power interruptions. "A joint approach breaks the deadlock between renewables and energy security, which would lead us to lose half of Europe each time," Neuhoff says.

Leading by example

Albeit slow, European progress has the power to inspire other countries to take up the climate challenge during the current political shakeup. Despite most UNFCCC member countries showing defiance in the face of Trump’s electoral win, there is a significant risk that his climate denial and related foreign policies could destabilise the framework set out in Paris.

The new US President could undermine climate action in a number of ways, even without 'cancelling' the Paris Agreement, as he infamously promised. For example, he could choose to cut climate finance. This would directly harm developing countries, and may mean that they in turn decide that without financial support they cannot fulfill their pledges.

It is not just by setting a good example that the EU can help to prevent other countries from following the US as it walks away from its Paris commitments.

"On the foreign policy end, the EU needs to develop policies that can support partners all over the world," says Susanne Droege, a climate policy and international trade expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. She says that the EU would not be able to fill the potential US$2 billion gap left by the US, "but of course this increases the pressure to do more about climate finance [and engage] emerging economies and the private sector" in the green economy.

Helping China make a business case for climate action

International partnerships will also be key to making the business case for sustainable transition. As the US global influence as one of the key climate players, the EU's friendship with China is one example of a trade and policy exchange that could become very significant.

Having recognised that too many people were suffering from the impacts of deadly pollution in Beijing and other major cities, China has embarked on a major cleanup, which includes greatly accelerating renewable deployment. The country is trying to combine economic growth with emissions reduction, and it is now emerging as an unlikely climate champion.

The partnership with the EU is proving vital to sustain this fine balance. For example, European markets are hungry for climate-friendly components and refrigerants. This huge customer pool provides China with an opportunity to upgrade its manufacturing sector, which is why it said yes to phasing down the production of harmful heat trapping coolants under the latest amendment to the Montreal Protocol. But it is not just about fridges.

China is planning to roll out a carbon trading scheme worth at least $100 billion per year by 2020. Under such a system companies can trade emission allowances, putting a price on carbon that encourages efforts to reduce emissions.

"Next year, the carbon trading market will cover 5 billion tons of CO2 emissions, about 50% of total carbon emissions in 2016," says Yang Fuqiang, climate and energy adviser with the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC). "Over time, this would become the world's largest carbon trading market, linking up with other similar schemes abroad," he says.

Currently, the EU manages the world’s biggest Emission Trading System (ETS), which covers just under half of its total emissions and includes over 11,000 power and manufacturing plants in 31 countries. China has teamed up with the EU to learn from its experience – and its mistakes.

"Free allowance allocation was too generous" says Susanne Droege. "And in a very early learning phase, companies realised the high gain potential from free assets". After the 2008 crisis the EU was unable to correct this mistake and emission prices collapsed. "There was no real incentive to invest in climate protection, and the problem still persists," she says.

While the EU missed some important opportunities to rectify the rules of its carbon market, China can start afresh, with a more straightforward if less democratic decision-making process. However, Droege notes that to secure greater influence within the UNFCCC China still needs to develop the kind of thorough foreign policy strategy that the US had under Obama’s remit.

It is within the sphere of UN climate politics that the US’s absence will be felt most strongly, and where the EU can make the biggest contribution to preserving momentum: "[At the latest climate talks] in Marrakech many people were discussing the situation in the corridors in a very open manner," says Yang. "We think that the EU is best placed to take the leadership role previously held by the US, and collaborate with China and become a leader in climate negotiations."

 

Lou Del Bello is a journalist specialised in climate science and policy. @loudelbello

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.

 

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ArticleClimate Diplomacy
Topic
Climate Change
Climate Diplomacy
Sustainable Transformation

Region
Europe
Global Issues
North America
Asia

Topics

Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Cities

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Co-Benefits

Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Development

Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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Energy

The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Finance

Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.

Forests

Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender

Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Security

Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.

Water

The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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Regions

Asia

The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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Europe

As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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