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Outi Honkatukia: EU’s climate leadership rests on reliability and commitment to lead by example

Publication date 10.7.2019 11.33
Outi Honkatukia
Photo: Olli Häkämies

The climate leaders have changed since the Paris Agreement was signed. Now, small island states are leading the way; the European Union, China and Canada are leading the way; cities and businesses are leading the way. Even schoolchildren have gone on strike to lead the way. In other words, even smaller actors can be leaders in climate policy. This is good news for the EU, too.

The Paris Agreement adopted in 2015 demonstrates the strength of cooperation and climate diplomacy and, in many ways, was a historic milestone. It is a legally binding treaty that strengthens global efforts and sets a common objective of limiting the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius.

It may very well be that the creation of the Paris Agreement was possible only in the geopolitical situation that prevailed at the time. The stars have since realigned, and we now need stronger EU action and leadership.

The undisputed champion of implementing commitments

The EU has already succeeded in decoupling economic growth from emissions, in other words the EU’s emissions have decreased while the economy has continued to grow. The EU’s position as a leader in implementing the commitments made is undeniable: it is firmly on track to meet its 2020 emissions reduction target and has adopted a set of legislation on the 2030 targets. Its own actions also show how the implementation of legislation boosts ambition.

The European Union speaks with one voice in international climate negotiations. Of course, this requires coordination of the EU’s positions before negotiations start. The EU environment ministers adopt Council conclusions, which will form the EU’s negotiating mandate for UN climate conferences. Differences of opinion between the Member States are first settled at official level, while ministers resolve the most politically difficult issues. It is no surprise that reconciling the views of 28 countries requires compromises. Some Member States expect more ambition and stronger climate leadership from the Council conclusions, while others emphasise global action and competitiveness. However, rather than a question of ‘either or’, it is a question of ‘both and’.

The ministers responsible for climate policy will publish the EU’s negotiating mandate well before the UN climate change conference in Chile in December. In other words, the EU will openly inform all parties before the negotiations about what it intends to achieve and what it can agree to. Openness and transparency are of course important values, but is disclosing your entire negotiation strategy the best way to achieve your goals? And will it reduce the role of EU ministers at UN climate conferences, if positions have already been set in stone, with no room for negotiation?

The strength of the EU in international climate negotiations is the ability to offer solutions and build bridges between different country groupings. In 2015, the EU joined forces with the small island states and least developed countries to advocate a strong, legally binding agreement with common rules for all and a mechanism to enhance the ambition level of emissions reduction targets. The package of implementation guidelines for the Paris Agreement were adopted in 2018 with the Katowice climate package.

Climate must be considered in all policies

The EU is constantly seeking to take climate issues better into account in various policy sectors. The significance of climate diplomacy is now wider than ever before. Today, we understand better the link between climate change and security, and recognise the interlinkages between climate policy and trade policy. For example, as the conditions of the EU–Mercosur trade agreement show, the EU wants to conclude new trade agreements only with countries committed to the objectives of the Paris Agreement and its implementation.

The EU’s leading role is also evident in climate finance. The EU is strongly committed to mobilising funding for climate action in developing countries also in the future. The transition to a carbon neutral economy is such a major investment challenge that it isn’t possible or even sensible to implement it solely with public funds. That is why the EU is emphasising the importance of policy coherence and a good operating environment: supporting renewable energy with development cooperation funds is slow and inefficient if, at the same time, the target country itself encourages the use of fossil-fuel energy sources. The EU will also work actively to ensure that the energy investments of international development finance institutions are directed towards renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. Emissions trading schemes and other policy instruments that make use of market mechanisms can help reduce emissions on market terms, but it’s clear that adaptation to climate change and climate action in the least developed countries will not move forward without public funding.

The European Union is a reliable and issues-oriented negotiating partner. The EU is reliable because it walks the talk on its emissions reductions and funding pledges. It will implement its emissions reduction targets into legislation and monitor their progress. The EU has long experience in implementing steering instruments such as emissions trading, and its know-how could be used more widely at global level. Having an issues-oriented approach is not a flaw, although it can make the EU seem boring – at least compared to the more striking personalities in climate negotiations.

While climate negotiations are important, the implementation of climate action is even more important. The role of non-state actors will keep growing, as businesses, cities and regional organisations continue their advanced climate policies both within and outside the EU. The key factors in terms of the long-term objective of the Paris Agreement are technological development, the competitiveness of renewable energy, decisions made by investors and consumers, and the markets. These real-world developments should also be kept in mind now, as we’re getting ready for the 25th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 25) in Santiago and the UN Climate Action Summit 2019 in New York.

Outi Honkatukia, Chief Negotiator for Climate Change, Ministry of the Environment