Snubbed in Copenhagen, EU weighs climate options

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Stunned by being sidelined in the endgame of the Copenhagen world climate summit, the European Union is debating how to regain influence over the fight against global warming.

An European Union flag flutters on the day marking the start of Spain's presidency of the EU, in the Andalusian capital of Seville January 8, 2010. REUTERS/Marcelo del Pozo

Should the world’s largest trading bloc and economic area respond to the policy setback and the diplomatic humiliation of the bare-minimum Copenhagen accord by playing Mr Nice, Mr Nasty, Mr Persistent or Mr Pragmatic?

The first two options -- setting a more ambitious example to others, or threatening climate laggards with carbon tariffs -- are tempting gestures, and each has its supporters.

But when the dust settles, the 27 EU governments are likely to stick to their carbon emissions reduction strategy while becoming more pragmatic about working outside the United Nations framework to achieve progress, experts say.

The EU went to last month’s U.N. negotiations seeking a legally binding agreement to cut emissions of greenhouse gases blamed for heating the planet, with precise reductions targets subject to international monitoring and enforcement.

Despite warning signs that their goals were unrealistic, the Europeans hoped to convert the rest of the world to their own model of supranational governance.

“We have to be honest. We did not fulfill our objectives,” European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told a conference of Brussels think-tanks on Tuesday.

In the end, the chaotic 190-nation conference merely noted a non-binding accord on broad principles, without commitments to numbers, concluded by the United States, China, Brazil, South Africa and India in the absence of the EU.


The bloc’s environment ministers will conduct a post-mortem on Copenhagen when they hold an informal meeting in the Spanish city of Seville on Saturday.

Officials acknowledge privately that the mandatory system for enforcing emissions curbs created by the 1997 Kyoto protocol is doomed because China won’t accept any constraints on its future economic growth, and the United States won’t join any agreement that is not binding on Beijing.

EU governments agreed in 2008 to cut their carbon emissions unilaterally by 20 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels and produce 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources. They also pledged to make deeper cuts of 30 percent if other major economies committed to equivalent measures.

The Mr Nice camp, made up largely of climate activists but also British and Dutch government advisers, argues the EU should assert leadership by moving unilaterally to a 30-percent cut.

It’s not going to happen. Such a move would require the unanimous agreement of EU states, some of which are already chafing at the 20 percent cut.

EU officials say any reopening of the bloc’s climate change package would more likely lead to a weakening of the existing targets under pressure from industries hurting in the recession.

The Mr Nasty camp, led by France and the steel industry, argues that the EU has been naive in its climate diplomacy and would gain more leverage if it decided to levy a carbon tax on imports from countries that apply lower emissions standards.

That too is not going to happen. The European Commission’s designated trade czar, Karel de Gucht, warned this week it could trigger a global trade war.

“It’s an approach that will run into many practical problems ... The big risk is that there will be slippage into a trade war with people outbidding each other on such measures,” he told a European Parliament confirmation hearing.

China might retaliate by imposing its own carbon tariff, calculated by emissions per capita, which are much higher in the industrialized world than in its emerging economy.


Since the EU looks unlikely to wield either a bigger carrot or a bigger stick, it is left with more mundane options: improving its negotiating methods; working more actively with China and other emerging powers, and with the United States; and meeting its own reductions targets.

“Whatever happens in the global process, we will deliver on our commitments,” Barroso told the think-tanks’ conference. “It would be a complete mistake, because of the disappointment in Copenhagen, to abandon all our targets now.”

The loss of economic output since 2008 will make it easier for the EU to reach its 20-20-20 goals, as they are known.

EU officials are looking to use every avenue to work with Brazil, South Africa, India and China -- the so-called BASIC countries -- on climate mitigation.

Away from the sound-bite diplomacy, those countries are keen to draw on European experience in developing a low-carbon economy, administering emissions quotas and carbon trading.

Insiders say the EU will seek to use informal bodies such as the Major Economies Forum and the G20 to make progress in fighting climate change because the unwieldy U.N. framework can too easily be blocked by a handful of obstructionist states.

“EU officials are pretty upset with the U.N. process and feel pretty frustrated,” said Jason Anderson, Head of EU Climate and Energy Policy at the environment campaign group WWF.

“The trick is to find a way to avoid the blockages. If you could just get the major emitters to agree to things, that would take some major problems out of the process.”

Europeans are unwilling to accept one possible lesson of Copenhagen: that theirs is a diminishing voice in world affairs.

Yet ironically, the more successful they are at reducing their own carbon emissions, the smaller a part of the global problem they will represent. That is not a promising starting point for trying to shape international climate policy.

Additional reporting by Pete Harrison; Editing by Jon Boyle