The EU was critical in the Paris climate agreement of 2015 and success in Glasgow may again depend on its leadership.
The United Kingdom’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, may not appeal to everyone—especially European Union leaders put off by Brexit. But the UK is hosting the latest round of global climate negotiations, COP26, in Glasgow next month, so the EU must put aside its issues with Johnson and come ready to work.
Up to this point, the history of the global climate talks held under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is a tale of two European cities: Copenhagen and Paris.
In 2009, world leaders and their national negotiators came together in Copenhagen to conclude a comprehensive treaty that would commit the entire world to far-reaching action to prevent the worst ravages of global warming. It didn’t happen.
Too many of the big players (and emitters) arrived without any viable proposals for reducing greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions and EU leaders found themselves hanging around in the corridors while the United States, China and India crafted a non-binding agreement which left many issues unresolved. Representatives from the most vulnerable countries looked on in despair as their interests were once again sidelined.
A key political miscalculation doomed the Copenhagen meeting to fail: while the EU is the champion of its own people, it is also a vital partner to those countries most affected by the terrifying consequences of climate change. Without European partnership—and by that I mean real political, practical and financial aid—the most vulnerable are left with no role in negotiations and no choice in terms of the sources and conditions of the support available to them.
Paving the way
But the EU learned from this experience. In 2011, at COP17 in Durban, South Africa, the EU led the way with a roadmap to ensure a voice for those most at risk. That initiative delivered an outcome which paved the way for the Paris climate agreement at COP21 four years later.
In 2015, when world leaders came to Paris, the Europeans again played a leading role. The EU helped form the High Ambition Coalition, an informal group of developed and developing countries committed to supporting the common goal of a genuine transition to a green economy.
This time, the US and China signaled that they understood the shared interest in climate action. The target of limiting global warming to 1.5C relative to pre-industrial levels was established and developed countries pledged to fund the poorest countries’ efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change and achieve sustainable economic growth. The onus was on the major economies to act quickly and share the benefits of their wealth and knowledge.
The Paris Agreement was signed and suddenly the future looked a little brighter. But in the six years since annual global GHG emissions have continued to climb, even in the pandemic-stricken year of 2020. Climate models have proven devastatingly accurate, as floods, hurricanes, wildfires and killer heatwaves grow in frequency and intensity. And this, as we know, is only the beginning.
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While discussions of the climate crisis were once considered a problem for future generations or those already living in extreme conditions, now Europe is suffering too. Germans and Belgians are being killed by floods and extreme temperatures are upending entire communities across the Mediterranean.
And so we arrive at Glasgow. This is the year all Paris Agreement signatories, having assessed their progress, were meant to return to the table prepared to increase their ambition for action at home and, in the case of richer countries, deliver support to poorer ones.
But there is not enough new money being offered. And the UK’s decision to reduce its overseas-aid commitment from an historic 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product, just months before taking over the COP presidency, sent the wrong message.
Meanwhile, parts of the British government seem to be more focused on spectacle than substance and the US and China seem more interested in goading each other than in focusing on their respective contributions to the fight against global warming. The tasks for the world’s two largest emitters, jointly responsible for almost half of global emissions, are clear: the US must follow through on its pledge to provide climate finance and China must phase out its use of coal. Each is as important as the other.
But where are the Europeans? Few, if any, EU governments are engaged in serious diplomacy to reconstitute the High Ambition Coalition that was critical to success in Paris, and the EU is not exerting any real pressure on the US to deliver its share of the annual $100 billion promised to poor countries to help them adapt and thrive.
If COP26 is to take its rightful place in history as the moment the world truly decided to work together to address our greatest-ever threat, the EU must stand up. The EU is the world’s richest trading bloc, most established diplomatic force and leading example of the power of tolerance and fairness. Unless it plays a key role, COP26 will fail.
Everyone, everywhere will benefit if the EU, its leaders and its diplomatic machinery move now to avert disaster and secure victory for global, inclusive and ambitious climate action. Real money and real emissions reductions need to emerge from Glasgow. The world cannot afford another Copenhagen.
Republication forbidden—copyright Project Syndicate 2021, ‘The EU must step up in Glasgow’