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Comment: EU needs to show leadership at Warsaw climate summit

Europe will fare badly in a system of great power competition, and needs to demonstrate global rules can work

Climate chief Connie Hedegaard is the face of the EU's efforts to develop a global agreement

Climate chief Connie Hedegaard is the face of the EU’s efforts to develop a global agreement

By Nick Mabey

As Europe begins to debate its climate mitigation targets for 2030 a predictable debate has reopened over its role in international climate politics.

This polarises around two extremes. Some argue that Europe must be the  unilateral global leader driving a 2C agreement. Others complain that Europe’s past leadership achieved nothing and other countries should lead first.

This oscillation between hubris and despair will be familiar to seasoned Europe observers. Neither approach reflects the reality of Europe’s place in the world, or what is needed to protect the fundamental interests of European citizens.

Europe needs a strategy based on the realities of the world as it is, reflecting the positive and negative shifts we have seen in the past years.

The world has changed since Copenhagen. The financial crisis has reduced the authority and influence of the “West”, but the rising powers have not stepped up fill the gap. The result is a decline in collective leadership to tackle common problems. This is a problem for Europe in delivering its climate change objectives, but is a result of the times not European weakness.

While the geo-politics of cooperation have got harder, the economic logic of tackling climate change has become more compelling. Shale gas has changed the energy landscape in the US, but the rest of the world has experienced a huge rise in oil and gas prices driven by demand in emerging economies.

With oil producing states from Saudi Arabia to Russia needing prices of $100-150 barrel to maintain government spending these prices will endure.

Meanwhile the cost of renewable energy, and energy efficient technologies like LED lights, have fallen far faster than expected as technology has improved and Chinese supply chains have expanded.

Costs in many sectors are already near previous estimates for 2020-2030. Combined with a quiet revolution in building and vehicle standards the world is far further along a low carbon path than anticipated. The global low carbon economy is already worth $3-4 trillion each year and renewable energy makes up over 40% of power investment.

New motivations

Perceptions of national interests in climate action are also shifting. Superstorm Sandy and nationwide drought has fundamentally changed US views on domestic climate risks as in 2012 extreme weather events caused losses of over 1.3% of US GDP. Extreme air pollution in China has become a political issue and accelerated the shift away from coal.

Chinese leaders realise they have strong national interests in ensuring the next generation of Chinese infrastructure is clean, efficient and low carbon. Countries from Mexico to South Korea are betting their industrial future on growing global markets for green and low carbon technology.

These changes have multiple causes but would have been infeasible without strong European climate action shaping global markets, regulations and diplomacy.  It was German and Spanish policy which supported the creation of the Chinese solar industry, which then drove a seven-fold increase in Chinese solar deployment. In an interdependent world influence is transmitted as much by markets and “policy osmosis” as it is by diplomatic grand bargains.

Unsurprisingly a post-crisis Europe is internally-focused, but failing to lead on climate change is a luxury the EU cannot afford. Europe is highly exposed to climate risks and is surrounded by the most climate vulnerable and unstable regions in the world. There is no realistic prospect of sustainable stability and peace in North Africa, the Sahel or the Middle East in a 4C world.

Europe needs a world where global rules work and would fare badly in a system of great power competition. It is difficult to imagine a world where there was no effective international climate change regime but trade was still open and rules-based. With Paris hosting the 2015 climate negotiations, Europe can show how to build meaningful cooperation in this more complex global order.

Clear narrative

While Europe must work with the other major powers, it needs to have its own distinct strategy to build the broad alliances needed for an ambitious climate deal. Presidents Obama and Xi may have agreed an eye-catching Summit statement on climate change this year, but it was more a signal of their inability to make progress on more contentious issues than a signal of a new “G2” order.

Confidence comes from a sense of agency in the world. Europe needs to better understand the different ways in it can shape the global environment in order to deliver its fundamental interests. This requires a clear-eyed focus on the realities of global politics; on outcomes not summit statements.

The record shows that Europe’s biggest lever on global action is its domestic ambition. Europe needs to propose a domestic greenhouse gas target of at least a 50% reduction from 1990 levels if it is to keep a realistic prospect of a 2C future in sight. This offer must be backed by significantly more political investment in climate diplomacy at leader’s level if it is to shape a climate of ambition toward the UN Climate Summit in 2014 and Paris in 2015.

There are no risk-free strategies to influence in a multi-polar world where it is always easier to block than to build, but only by taking bold moves to shape global politics is there any chance of Europe can deliver on its core interests.

Nick Mabey is Chief Executive and a founder director of E3G

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