Beyond Cancun: EU engagement with China on climate change

Cancun will not achieve a global deal, but that should not mean that the EU gives up. By pursuing bilateral deals, particularly with China, and engaging with civil society, Europe can make progress on climate change even in the absence of worldwide agreement. Such innovative approaches might even strengthen the multilateral approach in the longer term.

Here are a few certainties about Cancun. There will be no global deal. The US will try to focus the agenda on a lack of transparency in China’s emissions control efforts – to cover the fact that the US also brings nothing substantial to the table and is stuck in an anachronistic, fuel-guzzling mindset. Chinese negotiators will arrive with their usual arguments, but equipped with better PR techniques to ensure they aren’t seen as the game stopper – the real lesson they took from Copenhagen. Poorer countries will clamour for more aid for both mitigation and adaption to climate change. The EU’s credibility among other key players will be dented by its current internal skirmishes on moving from 20 to 30 per cent reductions by 2020. At the end of two weeks in Mexico, those who aspire to a global deal will be directed towards 2011 and South Africa, and few will believe that it can happen there either. Finally, the summit will be a lot warmer than Copenhagen, and the general world temperature will continue to rise, as the scientists keep telling us. 

The conclusion is that big global deals are off – at least for the time being. That’s the short, and somewhat depressing, summary. Yet Cancun doesn’t have to finish before we can start looking at where we go next. Nor are huge international summits the only way forward. For Europe, if the road to a global deal is blocked, there are other routes to take. The EU can make progress on climate change without the entire world’s simultaneous agreement, and should not stay purely on the multilateral track that is leading to the same dead end as the WTO-negotiations on the Doha-round. This is where the EU, itself the world’s biggest multilateral adventure, has to demonstrate ingenuity and innovation. Bilateral agreements with nation states outside Europe and cooperation with non-state actors are two potentially fruitful ways forward.

In the absence of a worldwide deal, the EU should pursue climate change agreements with countries like China, India and Brazil that can be initiated bilaterally and then feed into the global system. These should be based on joint reduction-settings, and include EU soft loans for buying energy efficiency and renewables. A similar approach is already working in the arena of free trade; having recognised that global trade talks were stalled, the EU has bilateral agreements in the pipeline with several Asian countries. These might prove to be the stepping stone for returning to a global deal. Likewise, bilateral climate change deals could be the building blocks that later allow the EU to return to the multilateral table, bolstered by new partners who support a global agreement. 

Let us examine the potential for greater EU engagement with China on climate change. This is not to point an environmental finger at Beijing. The US is a much larger per capita emitter than China, but is gridlocked internally and with the likes of Sarah Palin talking about a climate change ‘hoax,’ any deal with Washington seems unlikely in the near future. Meanwhile, China is the world’s largest emitter, albeit with lower per capita levels, and climate change is already a major priority in EU’s relations with China.

We shouldn’t underestimate the EU’s influence. Copenhagen is perceived as a disaster for Europe yet many concrete Chinese projects like carbon-free cities are developing because of the EU, not the US. The EU should enhance that, developing a concrete partnership with China based on the latter’s own ambitions relating to energy efficiency. China wants to achieve sustainable growth. In this area, existing networks with internal Chinese actors will also an asset, and there are huge economic possibilities for the EU. As a study by HSBC concludes, the low carbon energy market in the European Union and China already makes up half the global market; this proportion is projected to grow further by 2020. The EU should, however, remember to push for reciprocity. For example, Europe could seek to include in any energy efficiency deal measures that would gradually see China’s national aims become binding targets for a multilateral solution. The EU would only bring its valuable technologies to the table if China also was willing to gradually re-commit to higher multilateral targets. 

The EU must also expand its policy options by examining the potential of bottom-up approaches and cooperation with non-state actors. Just as the EU itself is a multi-layered civilian power, with interplay between nation-states, civil society groups and citizens, the new world order is not only about power shifts to the emerging BRIC nations. It is also about the development of an inter-wired world with non-state actors influencing global governance. It is transnational networks of business, industry and citizens that EU should cooperate with in curbing climate change. It is business that will produce the innovative solutions – not the dictates of government. It is citizens and groups that demand that their pension funds invest in a climate-friendly fashion. Ultimately, it is individual decisions that make people change lifestyle and reduce their carbon footprints. Look at the newspaper ads leading up to Cancun in the UK by a group of companies lobbying for stricter corporate reporting on carbon emissions. If such initiatives spread to Chinese and American companies, that would influence their governments and could strengthen the push for climate change far more than international pressure at global summits.

The EU should not, however, give up on global multilateralism – its own raison d’etre. While pursuing bilateral deals, there is also room for joining forces with other states and regional groupings. Although the EU has had little success in its solo attempts to pressure China into greater commitment to the multilateral track, for example, the solution could be for Europe to cooperate with others in influencing Beijing through climate change agreements. Likewise, the bottom-up approach to multilateralism that engages business and civil society has the potential to succeed where efforts to persuade governments have failed. While it waits for the world to inch towards a global deal, the EU can take positive strides in other directions using the best of its own peculiar form of transnational network and civilian engagement.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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