The Copenhagen summit has been disastrous for the European Union, the most ambitious player and self-proclaimed leader in international climate policy. Not only did the outcome fall far short of Europe's high expectations, but the European Union also failed to play any major role in determining the course of negotiations. During the final stages of the summit, the United States and China almost completely sidelined the Europeans. Nevertheless, Europe's commitment remains crucial for the establishment of an efficient global climate regime. To play a more constructive role in the near future, the European Union will have to revisit its strategy of "leadership by example."
In early 2007, the European Union unilaterally committed itself to a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 (compared with the base year 1990), combined with an offer to step up emission cuts to 30 percent if other major emitters were also willing to make ambitious pledges. In Copenhagen, however, neither the United States nor China was interested in the European Union's increasing emissions reductions; they simply wanted to be left alone.
Two things about the "leadership by example" approach became clear at the Copenhagen summit. First, it is not a strategy for success in the short run. Second, it is not an approach that will work within a UN framework. Contrary to what the idealistic Europeans have assumed, negotiations at the UN level are never only about individual policy issues; they are always about global power politics. In this particular case, they are not only about the relationship between industrialized and developing countries but also more importantly about the shifting balance between established and emerging powers. To achieve significant progress in UN climate negotiations, you have to be able to put other proposals unrelated to climate on the table. But this is a difficult task for the European Union, where the 27 member states still play a strong role in foreign policy and where a great deal of internal coordination is needed to speak with one voice on the international level.
Since Copenhagen, the European Union has been gripped by debates over how to enhance its diplomatic capabilities in order to forge a new international climate treaty within the next two years. But instead of regarding such an agreement as an end in itself, Europeans should ask themselves if a legally binding treaty under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is really the ultimate goal. …