Some claim that the toxic cocktail of conflict, inflation and an energy crisis mean global climate action is doomed. The EU has no choice but to prove the critics wrong, starting with COP27.
The case for urgent climate action has rarely been stronger. Earlier this year, the IPCC, the panel of climate scientists of the United Nations, warned that the world needs to prepare for a hotter planet unless concerted, preventive global climate action is taken. Only last week, the UN also stressed that existing national climate plans fall drastically short of what is required to meet the Paris Agreement targets and that incremental change is no longer an option.
This summer, the EU got a taste of what life on that hotter planet looks like. Record droughts across Europe have led to unusable inland shipping routes for the transport of fossil fuels, nuclear reactors, hydropower plants and crop failures.
At the same time, global climate action is competing for the attention and resources of governments with a multitude of other crises. In addition, international trust and cooperation – essential for addressing climate change – are at an alarmingly low level following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
This begs the question: is global climate action doomed to fail? And what can the EU do to avoid that scenario, when the world meets next week at the UN’s principal climate change conference, COP27?
Build back trust
An increasing sense of urgency does not automatically translate into a successful COP27. The EU should use the opportunity to ‘repair’ trust among countries and enable the collective action that climate change requires. But how?
Recognising finance is an integral part of climate action.
The EU is convinced that ambitious climate action starts with yourself: leading by example will bring along others. Throughout the past two decades, climate action has gravitated towards the centre of its policy agenda. The EU is now aiming for global climate leadership, setting a legally binding net-zero target by 2050 and corresponding policies to carry out this societal transition across every sector.
On the other hand, the EU is traditionally blamed for derailing several recent COP conferences. Its resistance to the set-up of a finance facility for so-called ‘loss and damage’ is both longstanding and irritating to many countries. This damage results from climatic events that mankind is unable or does not have the resources to adapt to, such as more frequent flooding or rising sea levels.
Vulnerable nations and the UN have stressed that COP27 must address the issue. Increasingly affected by extreme weather itself, the EU has also been experiencing loss and damage first-hand. Therefore, it cannot expect climate action to be successful if it continues to neglect its financial arm.
There are encouraging signs that the Union is finally grasping the issue. The German government recently said it would prioritise it in its foreign policy and Denmark announced it would offer loss and damage compensation to other countries affected by it. In parallel, the European Parliament is also pushing the EU to set up a separate fund with a similar aim. At a recent preparatory meeting for COP27, the European Commission also outlined options to fund loss and damage. Recent Council conclusions call for integrating climate disaster response in the EU humanitarian and development aid.
Existing climate plans of many countries won’t limit global warming sufficiently, putting the EU’s own plans in the spotlight.
In June, European Commission Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans suggested that reaching an agreement on major elements of the EU’s climate agenda (such as its Emissions Trading System and a carbon border tax) before COP27 would be the best way to guarantee a successful outcome.
However, soaring inflation and a quickly expanding energy crisis have cast a long shadow on this ambition. Now that the UN has found that many plans elsewhere are severely insufficient to meet the Paris Agreement targets, it will be key for the EU to present more ambitious plans if it wants to induce others to do the same.
Promisingly, the EU is focusing its efforts on reaching an agreement on the low-hanging fruit where an agreement is within reach. On 27 October, it agreed on new emission targets for light-duty vehicles. The EU should ensure it also reaches an agreement on issues such as land use and forestry, as well as on non-traded emissions as soon as possible, while ensuring it will not let ambition levels slide for the sake of reaching an agreement.
Forging a renewed consensus on climate action.
The EU is responsible for around 20% of global emissions, a figure that has been shrinking in the past years because of climate action and Europe’s diminishing share of the total global economy. One could therefore argue that the EU is on a good-enough track to net-zero and that it’s now time for other countries to do their part.
However, devastating floods in Pakistan and record droughts in the Horn of Africa make it painstakingly obvious that climate change is not just an issue that humanity must face collectively. It also enlarges inequality, whereby emissions produced in developed economies drive disastrous effects in developing ones. The issue of climate action is driving a corresponding divide, undermining the potential for collective action that it requires.
The EU is one of the largest industrialised economies but also the world’s largest climate finance donor in the world. It is therefore uniquely placed to bridge this gap and to rebuild trust among countries. More than anything, this requires showing willingness to overcome the controversial stance it has taken on issues such as climate finance.
It is far from the only one that will determine whether COP27 will go into the history books as a success story, but in line with a central tenet of the EU’s own climate policy: bold and ambitious action starts with yourself.
A special thanks to our former colleague Richard Masquelier who contributed to the drafting of this article.