> topics > International Studies

The EU’s motivations for assuming global leadership on climate change policy

By Xie Laihui | 2013-07-25 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Science Digest)

Connie Hedegaard, European Commissioner for Climate Action, speaks at the Informal Ministerial Roundtable on Climate Change in May, 2012 to discuss the aftermath of Durban (EC)

The European Union has been playing an active role in addressing the climate change since the 1980s. During negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1997, the 15 EU members promised that for the Protocol’s first commitment period, from 2008-2012, they would collectively reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 8% (relative to the annual emissions in the base year of 1990), a rate that exceeded the commitments of many other developed countries, including the United States and Japan. In March of 2001, the United States withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol while the EU ratified it the following May, urging other countries to follow suit so as to have the protocol enter into force as soon as possible. Since then, the EU has superseded the United States to take the lead on promoting global climate regulations. In order to secure Russia’s ratification of the protocol, the EU supported Russia’s entry into the WTO and purchased Russian natural gas at uncompetitive prices; Russia’s ratification helped the protocol enter into force in February, 2005.
The 15 EU member states fulfilled their collective reduction goal for the first commitment period, and the EU was also one of the most vocal signatories in championing a global emissions reduction agreement after the end of the first commitment. In 2007, the EU committed itself to a 20% reduction of carbon emissions by 2020 and a 20% increase in the use of renewable energy sources. Observers thought the EU may have lost its leading role in global climate talks after it was excluded in the drafting process of the Copenhagen Accord by the U.S. in 2009. However, two years later at the Durban Conference on Climate Change, the EU led the way in proposing a roadmap for legally binding energy targets that was ultimately agreed upon by 194 countries. From the perspective global environment governance history, the EU and its member states have not always been obvious leaders; however, their role has been outstanding in combating climate change.
According to John R Schmidt, the senior analyst for Europe in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the U.S. Department of State, an important reason why Europe takes lead on global cooperation on climate change is the principle of prevention—Europe’s preference for risk-averse policy drives its climate legislation. Schmidt also pointed out that Europe envisions establishing a Kantian world order, has an aristocratic sense of responsibility (compared with the United States) and shows tolerance toward developing countries. Owing to its preference of multilateralism and pursuit of morality and justice, Europe would like to provide public goods for the world.
While Schmidt’s analysis is compelling and ideological factors can help understand EU’s strategies on climate change, it is hard to regard them as more significant than economic interests. Assumption of political motivation provides another possible explanation for the EU’s leadership in climate change policy. It suggests that the EU’s central motivation is securing an avenue to a position of global leadership, and therefore they value climate change as an opportunity. In fact, the members of EU have shown great concern for this issue long before it had reached its present membership of 27 countries. The explanation provided by the assumption of political motivation, however, is not satisfying in that it fails to analyze the internal politics within those countries.
One common approach to analyzing individual actors’ motivations in climate policy strategy is a cost-benefit analysis. Pioneered by Detlef Sprinz and Tapani Vaahtoranta in their 1994 article “The Interest-Based Explanation of International Environmental Policy,” this method tries to explain how a state participates in international environmental protection by comparing its environmental degradation (or ecological vulnerabilities) versus its economic cost of pollution abatement. This approach proves limited because of the authors’ assumption that each unit of analysis is only concerned with this cost-benefit ratio within its own borders, and it fails to examine the effects that climate change may exert on other countries and even the globe.
Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian believed that fear, honor and interest are pivotal in understanding a country’s behavior. Fear of the disastrous consequences that may be caused by climate change is undoubtedly one of the motivations driving humans to find a solution. Additionally, the fear of a significantly reduced global supply of fossil fuels is also one of the main reasons behind many EU member states’ attempts to transform into low-carbon economies. The establishment of the EU has greatly elevated the importance of climate change on the global political agenda, and the policies it has adopted to combat this problem are closely connected with its integration process. These policies are even seen as a key domain in gauging the success of integration. Fear and honor alone, however, cannot offer sufficient explanation for the EU’s behavior; interest is a more essential consideration.
When considered from the perspective of political economy, comparative advantage, rather than absolute advantage, is a key factor influencing climate strategies. The Kyoto Protocol stipulated that the EU reduce 8% of the emissions of greenhouse gases; the United States, 7%; and Japan and Canada, 6%. This formulation was not based on any economic calculation, but rather the result of political bargaining. In the era of economic globalization, the majority of the developed countries are dependent on the supply of the international energy market in one way or another. The ease of capital flow has also facilitated industrial transfer, which has made international competition fiercer employment tougher as well. This interdependence increasingly forces countries to take global economic factors into consideration when determining climate policy. Concerns over energy security and economic security have united the political elite within the EU. All these factors are directly related to world trade and have helped bring about the introduction of domestic climate policies. Domestic politics and the performance of national economies are closely related to international activities, serving as the driving force for the EU to implement active climate strategy.
As a developed economy, the EU has heavily relied on fossil fuels. The oil crises forced Western Europe to embark on a path of reducing reliance on imported energy sources, saving fossil fuels and exploring renewable energy sources.
Out of fear of heavy dependence on imported energy, the EU has introduced many measures that have provided a basis for the development of a low-carbon economy, though these have (to a certain extent) failed to reduce its reliance on foreign energy. In encouraging a global vision of a low-carbon economy, the EU could not only become less dependent on imported energy, but also weaken the traditional advantage of its economic rivals, including the US, Russia and Middle Eastern countries as well as other exporters of fossil fuels, increasing its comparative advantage.
Biomass, waste utilization and hydroelectricity are the three main sources of renewable energy in the EU. Hydroelectricity has limited potential, while its total installed capacity basically remains stable. Wind power and biomass’s capacity for generating electricity, however, has been noticeably increasing—wind power especially has seen a meteoric rise since 1996. Eleven EU members have offered subsidies for companies using wind power to generate electricity—even higher than that of the United States. The EU has a spectacular advantage in the wind power industry: four of the five biggest suppliers of wind power equipment are members of the EU; together, they account for 72% of the global market share.   
Addressing climate change could affect the international political and economic order and even provoke reflection on the nature of modern society. Different from other global international environmental problems, climate change and the strategies to combat it have a distinguished significance for the world economy. The unique status of the EU in world economy is the main reason why it has led the way in addressing climate change. After the energy crises in the 1970s, the EU altered its use of foreign energy sources, obtaining an advantage in the use of non-fossil energy, which is the chief reason for its leading role in fighting climate change. By enhancing international cooperation on climate change, the EU could weaken its competitors politically and gain energy security as well as a competitive advantage.
Xie Laihui is from the China Center for Global Governance and Development at the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau.
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Science Digest, N0. 107, Nov 2012.
Translated by Jiang Hong
Revised by Charles Horne