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  • Nikola Zivkovic

An overview of the European Union’s climate diplomacy

Nikola Zivkovic*

As we anxiously follow the news covering the COP 26 Climate Change Summit in Glasgow, our inner voice keeps feeding our fears centered around the most troubling question of all – is it too late? We do know it’s not enough but remain hopeful it is not too late. Report after report published in the past few weeks on the road to Glasgow verify that we are well off the track of what countries agreed in Paris in 2015 to keep our planet away from the “tipping point”. Yet, while individual speeches of the world leaders acknowledge the looming risk we are facing, all wrapped up in an alarming discourse with hints of inspirational messages, the gap between the words said and their countries’ poor climate change performance make Glasgow summit premises appear as a place detached from the rest of the World.

Climate Change is the most defining challenge of our time – leaders say and many of us agree – impacting our lives and shaping global, regional and national agendas. It overshadows and drives every nations’ serious strategic thinking and risk analysis, from short to long term. This exemplary global issue that cares for no border compels a strong and decisive global action – a global effort that proved to be so difficult to convene. Special attention is brought to the G20 members, as they are responsible for almost 80% of global greenhouse gasses (GHG) emissions, though unequally distributed among them, and play the pivotal role in keeping the planet’s temperature rise at 1.5C.

The European Union (EU) is a major global actor in the fight against climate change. With its 27 member states in terms of the size of its economy, its trade weight and its energy consumption pattern, the EU is a climate powerhouse occupying one of the leading positions in the global climate regime. The EU managed to steadily decrease its GHG emissions going beyond its self-imposed Kyoto Protocol target reaching above 25% reductions compared to 1990, while securing its GDP growth beyond 45%. Today the EU’s share of global emissions is around 10%, behind that of the biggest emitters, namely, China and the US, with 30% and 13% of the global share, respectively.

The EU’s climate policies and leadership have been characterized by its strong support for multilateral approach aimed at building a more robust global climate regime, though with somewhat mixed success. Ever since the negotiations to establish the UNFCCC back in 1992, the EU tried to push forward legally binding emissions reduction targets, which only partially became a reality with the Paris Agreement – as parties are only obliged to submit their increasingly ambitious mitigation targets, but not to actually achieve them.

Much of the EU climate leadership experience was built step-by-step and learning by doing, particularly as the US decided not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, which thoroughly undermined the global climate regime creation. Donald Trump’s disengagement from the global climate negotiations and his blunt denial of climate change brought a severe disruption of EU-US climate change cooperation. For the most part of the 21st Century this power vacuum created space for the EU to step up its climate diplomacy, while building up its robust internal climate policy framework.

A significant shift in the EU’s climate diplomacy strategy came after the disappointing 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (COP 15), which the EU entered with the highest ambitions, just to end up being entirely marginalized during the final negotiations. Despite its high climate credibility at the moment, the EU’s goal to lead by example and attract the others via its own model and ideas, but without direct and timely engagement with others proved to be unproductive. Since then, the EU went out to designate a fundamentally different approach to its climate leadership, as it started to engage in coalition building with other principal actors and understanding their interests and positions. Engagement with the US, and particularly with China and India, as well as other developing countries and emerging powers, proved to be essential for the COP 21 negotiations which saw the creation of the so-called “High Ambition Coalition” that made possible the Paris Agreement.

Today, the EU entered the COP 26 negotiations carrying in its baggage highly ambitious climate change internal policy proposal and regulations. Namely, in 2019 the European Commission presented its flagship initiative and a major overarching policy roadmap: the European Green Deal. It sets up the foundations for very ambitious GHG emissions cuts by at least 55% until 2030, with a plan to bring emissions down to net-zero by 2050, making Europe the first climate-neutral continent. Just this summer the European Commission proposed a sweeping set of more than a dozen of new laws and regulations, that even though they are predominately internal, they do have a strong external and geopolitical dimension if implemented.

In its annual 2021 Strategic Foresight Report on the EU’s capacity and freedom to act, the European Commission identified “climate change and other environmental challenges as the first biggest challenge that will affect Europe in the coming decades”. The EU leaders demonstrate to be mindful of the overall public opinion too. The latest surveys conducted by the Eurobarometer in 2021, demonstrate equal preoccupation among the EU citizens, as “93% of EU citizens see climate change as a serious problem and 78% as a very serious problem, while 90% of respondents that GHG emissions should be reduced to a minimum in order to make the EU economy climate-neutral by 2050”.

Yet, the EU will have to face off two major obstacles in its efforts to become a climate-neutral continent: internal cohesion and equal implementation of climate regulation; and its capacity to push for a stronger climate cooperation and dedication among leading GHG emitters, particularly when it comes to the EU’ strategy to motivate other actors to follow the same path and to convince them that the spill-over effect of its internal policies will not damage their interest.

The internal divisions among EU Member States seem to be growing on various fronts, and climate change is only one of them. Inability of the EU to secure internal cohesion and speak in one voice has undermined its negotiation power before, and history seems to be repeating in Glasgow, as Polish, Hungarian and Czech Republic leaders recklessly and openly voice their strong opposition to what seems to be the EU’s ambition and negotiating strategy. This can severely undermine its credibility, weaken its strategic capacity to lead by example and engage more profoundly in global climate leadership.

On the other side, the EU cannot ignore the global dimension and spill-over effect of its internal regulations and policies. As the European Green Deal and the later resulting legislation aim at profoundly transforming its economy, energy sector, investments, production and consumption patterns, trade, etc., the EU will have to organize its foreign policy around controlling, promoting, defending and managing the effects of such fundamental transformations towards its major trading partners and allies. Among them of principal concerns are the US, China, Russia, Norway and Algeria (due to energy trade), as well as other neighboring countries and regions, such as the Balkans or Middle East.

Economic and political power redistribution in favor of emerging economies is making the world increasingly multipolar, if not uncertain too, and the EU still needs to position itself towards them, making sure not to damage the existing partnerships, while harnessing new ones. Climate change is just one of many problems where neither the EU nor any other actor can single-handedly lead in order to make the much-needed change, but the change has to start somewhere.

*Profesor asistente de Relaciones Internacionales,Politica Exterior, Conflicto y Negociación

en Tecnologico de Monterrey. Cuenta con experiencia en 5 países diferentes en sectores que incluyen, derechos humanos,democracia, integración europea y paz. Actualmente lidera el comité por el Medio Ambiente y Desarrollo Sostenible en AMEI.

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APA 7: Zivkovic,N. (2021, Noviembre 02). An overview of the European Union’s climate diplomacy. Global Lens.

MLA 8: Zivkovic,N. “An overview of the European Union’s climate diplomacy” Global Lens, 2 Noviembre, 2021,

Chicago: Zivkovic,N. “An overview of the European Union’s climate diplomacy” Global Lens, 2 Noviembre,

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