The climate trust gap: How the EU can bridge divides in Glasgow

The EU risks losing the confidence of developing nations when it comes to the green transition. But it can bridge this trust gap, if it takes action at COP26 and beyond.

The Clyde Arc, Glasgow
Image by dun_deagh

Hopes are high for the Glasgow climate meeting. But achieving success in the COP26 negotiations will not be easy.

Russia will not agree to new commitments easily and is asking for softer sanctions to facilitate investments in climate transitions. India is raising its ambitions for renewable energy, but a recent spate of power outages will impede its phase-out of coal. China’s recent pledges do not go far enough, and Xi Jinping will remain in Beijing for the conference.

It is easy to be Eurocentric in world-view from our continent, overestimating European influence on the global agenda. At the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, the European Union failed to understand the international power politics at play and as a result was side-lined by China, India, Brazil, and the United States.

Now, awareness among European political leaders and officials is higher and climate diplomacy intense. Still, there are warning signs that Copenhagen could repeat itself in some respects.

A recent statement from the Like-Minded Developing Countries – a bloc of negotiating states that operates across different international organisations – is just such an example. It not only repeats now-familiar messages about richer countries’ historical responsibility for the climate crisis, but India, China, Indonesia, and the 21 other states in the group criticise net-zero targets for 2050 and the EU’s proposed carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM). Such measures “are discriminatory towards developing countries” and “must be strongly opposed”, they say.

The adoption of this tone may all be part of preparing for negotiations, but it also signals a deeper lack of trust that is shared by other countries in the global south.

In the run-up to the Paris climate agreement at COP21 in 2015, the EU forged a working alliance with the Least Developed Countries. In the world of climate diplomacy, this success strengthened the argument that emerging economies such as China should not be regarded in the same way as the poorest countries.

Many developing countries feel let down after receiving little help on covid-19 vaccines and the debt crisis in the poorest parts of the world.

But now many developing countries feel let down after receiving little help to obtain covid-19 vaccines, and following sluggish global action to combat the serious debt crisis in the poorest parts of the world. If they perceive EU proposals such as CBAM as a further barrier to their development, progress on the climate agenda will stall. Countries neighbouring Europe, such as Ukraine, Turkey, Algeria, and Egypt, will also be heavily affected by CBAM. But they lack sufficient resources to quickly change their model of industrial production.

The EU needs to bridge this trust gap. To begin with, it must do more to facilitate climate transitions in other countries – and it should use part of the income from CBAM for this purpose. In addition to making more finance available to developing countries to support their transitions, and alongside designing better instruments that make green investments less risky in developing countries, the EU should also step up its green technology cooperation.

The European Commission vice-president for the European Green Deal, Frans Timmermans made clear he recognises the need for more EU activity on this front during his recent visit to Indonesia, saying, “There is a huge responsibility of the developed world to share technologies with the developing world”.

But the EU must take more concrete action. It needs to intensify cooperation with other countries on research and development, and on cross-boundary demonstration projects – effectively, making greater efforts to encourage co-innovation between European states and others around the world.

Establishing a Co-innovation and Green Tech Diffusion Fund will show that the EU is serious about ramping up this cooperation. Such a fund can be financed partly by the EU’s Global Europe international cooperation programme, partly by income from CBAM, and partly by a reformed emissions trading system (ETS). The EU can also take a more constructive approach at the World Trade Organization on issues such as intellectual property rights. Internally, the EU and member states must increase their investment in human and economic resources for green innovation cooperation with third countries.

These issues will not be solved in Glasgow. Internal EU negotiations over the bloc’s climate Fit for 55 package, including CBAM and the ETS, will continue in the coming months. But EU policymakers urgently need to discuss the external aspects of climate policy openly and intensify their dialogue with other countries on how to bridge the trust gap.

This should include drawing up a clear strategy for the process after Glasgow. In addition to the formal negotiations, there will be several other commitments in the margins of COP26, for example on the decarbonisation of sectors such as steel production. Once the delegates leave Glasgow, a new home will be needed in which to further pursue these important discussions. One option could be the OECD. But to strengthen trust, the EU should advocate close north-south cooperation on such follow-up, including decarbonisation roadmaps for steel and other sectors. For example, proposals exist for a global green hydrogen alliance – this could be set up with the secretariat in India.

The United Kingdom will continue to have an important role in climate diplomacy, and the carbon challenge could provide a place for EU-UK cooperation when difficulties abound in other areas of the post-Brexit relationship. In an ideal scenario, by the time the delegates leave Scotland, the EU should have made clear how London and Brussels plan to work together after COP.

Germany will assume the G7 presidency, and France hold the EU presidency during the first half of 2022. Indonesia will be chairing the G20 in 2022, followed by India in 2023, when Sweden and Spain are scheduled to take the helm of the EU. Together with the European Commission and the European External Action Service, these countries can already begin preparing to work together to bridge the trust gap. If the Glasgow meeting does not live up to all expectations, demonstrating such momentum might reignite hope.

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

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