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Is Europe still the world leader in the fight against climate change?

Submitted by on 20 Apr 2015 – 12:27

Europe defines itself as the world leader in the fight against climate change. This is true in many ways. The bloc’s commitment towards the upcoming global deal on climate action, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% in 2030 compared to 1990 levels, is among the most ambitious in the world. Pascal Canfin at the World Resources Institute (WRI) argues that Europe risks being left behind on the global stage if its Member States fail to invest in low-carbon economies.

But Europe’s leadership is crumbling. The climate and energy policy package adopted by member states in October 2014 is less ambitious than the one adopted in 2007/2008 ahead of the Copenhagen conference – the last big moment in the international climate negotiations. Its legal force is weaker and the expected rate of emission reductions is decreasing. Over the coming years, the reduction rate announced by the United States will be higher than the one provided by the European package.

While Europe had a competitive advantage in green technologies for along time, other countries are progressively catching up. For instance, during the negotiations on the 2011 trade agreement between the EU and South Korea, it was the Europeans, not the Koreans, who demanded the alleviation of standards on car emissions – because European vehicles would have been too polluting to be sold on the Korean market under Korean standards.

The best performing steel mills in environmental terms are not located in Europe, but in China. China is now also the world leader in solar energy. And it is in California, not in Europe, where the convergence of the green economy and the digital economy is taking shape. While the EU has long been the only region in the world with a carbon market, it was joined by a number of US States and Chinese provinces. China will put in place a nation-wide carbon market next year.

The green economy is spurring innovation and investments across the world, but Europe is failing take advantage of its advance – at the expense of its industrial competitiveness and its jobs. It seems almost as if Europe does not see the signals for the third industrial revolution taking place in other major economies.

Europe has struggled to agree on its climate and energy objectives for 2030 because of its internal divides. Some EU Member States, like Germany and the Scandinavian countries, are at the forefront of the global energy transition; many Central and Eastern European Countries however still rely on past energy systems made up of obsolete and inefficient coal-based power generation systems.

The European position on climate is also weakened by the inability of its member states to agree on a common approach towards energy policy. Despite the momentum towards building a comprehensive and low-carbon ‘Energy Union’, many choices are still made on the basis of national priorities, be it the nuclear phase-out in Germany or ambitions to develop shale gas in Poland or in the United Kingdom.

One priority all EU member states share is the ambition to reduce energy dependence from Russia. Energy efficiency, smart grids and a greater share of renewable energy all help reduce the need to import oil and gas from outside the European Union. The energy security aspect could make the Energy Union a major strategic project of the Union for the first half of the 21st century, as the European Coal and Steel was at the end of World War II.

Despite these challenges, the EU and its member states, have everything it takes to be at the center of the international climate negotiations. Europe has one of the most ambitious reduction commitments among developed countries and represents more than 54% of international development aid alone. It is also the closest ally of the poorest countries in the international climate negotiations.

Photo: TOM, Flickr

Photo: TOM, Flickr

It is this alliance between Europe, the world’s poorest countries and progressive emerging economies such as those in Latin American or South Africa that led to a revival of the climate negotiations after the failures of Copenhagen in 2009. And it could be this alliance that in Paris in December works to increase the level of ambition from other key players such as China and the United States.

In July, when all major emitters are due to have submitted their contributions towards the Paris climate agreement, we will know how much closer this deal will bring us to the 2 degrees pathway. As this point, we will find ourselves at a crossroads. Most likely, more ambition will be required.

For the EU, this means Heads of State and Governments will have to consider moving forward and propose additional action that goes further than the 40% offer of the European package, using the flexibility offered by the “at least” phrase in the text. The window for agreeing such action open this summer and the meeting between President Obama and President Xi Jinping in September, just ahead of the General Assembly of the United Nations can be an important opportunity to leverage any additional action further. Preparations therefore need to start today.

Europe is the third largest emitter of CO2 on the planet and it has historic responsibility to lead in the fight against climate change. Europe also has a tremendous opportunity in the development of a low-carbon economy: while it is the richest continent in terms of human capital, it is also the poorest in terms of raw materials – and fossil resources in particular. Switching to a low-carbon economy based on innovation, smart grids, compact cities, energy efficiency and renewable energy may not be to the taste of all lobbies, but it is very much in Europe’s economic interest.

Pascal Canfin  is a Senior Advisor on International Climate Affairs for World Resources Institute (WRI) and Author of Climate: 30 questions to understand the Conference of Paris, (Les Petits Matins, May 2015.)  He is a former MEP (Greens/EFA) and French Minister for Development.


 Pascal Canfin at the World Resources Institute (WRI) argues that Europe risks being left behind on the global stage if its Member States fail to invest in low-carbon economies.