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Realising the EU’s Green Potential

Submitted by on 25 Nov 2013 – 11:33

By Anna O’Connor, Editorial Researcher, Government Gazette

Climate change and energy security are central to the most pressing issues faced by the EU today

The EU has seen happier days. It faces several challenges, the biggest one being the financial crisis and the myriad impacts this has had. These include the exacerbation of existing issues such as the possible fracturing of the Eurozone and even the seemingly unthinkable possible exit of an EU member state from the union, with the UK seriously considering a public referendum on whether they will stay in.

Yet prior to all this, the EU was succeeding in finding its feet and defining its position on the world stage. While it might not have claimed to have an abundance of hard power there was an increasingly firm sense of its unique attributes including its soft/civilian power. One area in which this was particularly apparent was in that of climate change negotiations. Prior to COP 9 in Copenhagen it seemed that the EU might be able to lead the negotiation and implementation of a new and improved successor to the Kyoto Protocol with a realistic approach to tackling the international climate change mitigation and adaptation strategy. Alas, COP 9 did not live up to the hopes and expectations of the international community, and crucially, while its success might have been seen largely as a success for the EU, the failure also had a natural owner.

Nevertheless the EU was then, and remains, uniquely positioned to lead the international green movement and reap the benefits that developing a competitive advantage in green technologies can bring. The EU is already meeting and exceeding its Kyoto targets – although this is in part attributable to the reduced industry caused by the recession. This unforeseen reduction in industrial emissions also had the unfortunate consequence of contributing to the failure of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. The EU has a highly skilled workforce, excellent universities and research facilities and perhaps most importantly, an existing strong ethos of enthusiasm and willingness among its citizens to actively participate in environmental schemes and measures[1]. In fact as well as the widespread compliance with regulation, the green thinking can be seen to have a voluntary take up in the popularity of the Fair Trade labelling.

As well as the potential that the EU doubtless possesses in this area, there is an element of necessity to take action. The EU continues to face a serious lack of energy security. There remains a heavy reliance on fossil fuels and with insufficient resources of its own, it is still at the mercy of Russia’s whims, and its current divide and conquer policies. Furthermore, given its championing of human rights it can find that having to rely as heavily as it does on fossil fuels from the Middle East jars with its core beliefs, where human rights records are not always in line with the ideals of the EU. This energy insecurity promises only to worsen as peak oil approaches and there is increasing competition from newly industrialised areas for increasingly limited resources. Talk of meetings on the subject of energy guarantees between the Saudis and Russians in the light of the Syrian situation can only make the policy context of EU energy dependency even more complicated.

Europe should learn from mistakes of the past when they lost out as a result of dragging their feet. The most painful reminder of this is surely when they missed the opportunity of capitalising on the development of the internet. While the technology for this was initially developed in Europe, it went on to be exploited by the USA which in turn benefited most from the quick and dirty development of ICT. While the USA is less well positioned in the case of green development expertise, there is also possible competition for the top spot from the USA, but also China, which has already developed large scale hydro-electricity infrastructure.

These days the EU’s international reputation as a leader in climate change negotiations is a dubious honour. The current system of international climate negotiation has arguably become an industry in itself with delegates agreeing on just enough at each COP to guarantee the need for another one. At present there is an understanding that the follow up to the Kyoto Protocol will be made by 2015. The many flaws and failings of the Kyoto protocol have been documented at length. However, as yet no feasible scheme has been proposed to address these failings and satisfy the varying demands of the world’s governments and the climate change community.

This complex collection of issues seems impenetrable. While it seems that more and more people are in agreement about the necessity of acting to address the real issue of climate change, it is hard to know where to begin. There are several steps that the EU could take to increase their green edge and live up to their self proclaimed ‘climate change champion’ status.

  • Introducing requirements for all goods manufactured and sold within the EU to include labelling information on their carbon footprint
  • Further enhancing tax incentives for green industry and entrepreneurial activities
  • Investigating measures to prevent the private sector from acquiring and not using low carbon technologies
  • Increasing the focus on mainstreaming of climate change considerations across all policy areas [2]
  • Enhancing the focus on low carbon futures, utilising current skills, for example applying expertise in offshore gas and oil extraction to offshore wind farms
  • Encouraging the use of low carbon public transport in an effort to reduce the more carbon intensive driving

Some of these measures may be more feasible than others. However all should be considered. Given the deadlock that the climate change negotiations seem to be in, it is high time for an attempt to break free with some new and innovative thinking. One such way is to attempt different methods and pilot schemes.

Perhaps the biggest advantage the EU has in the case of green competition is its green minded and forward thinking citizens. It is high time for them to empower and utilise this unique lead. Should the EU enhance their climate expertise they can benefit from being early adopters. This area more than any is an opportunity for the EU to both prove its soft power and through green growth begin to address some of the woes caused by the financial crisis.


[1] Including the implementation of plastic bag levies in several countries and smoke free work places

[2] As part of a new EU focus on mainstreaming, the EU commission has already proposed that the EU budget for 2014 to 2020 should have 20% reserved for climate relevant activities.