The Council’s conclusions at last year’s COP21 conference are a missed opportunity to remedy some of the weaknesses of the Paris agreement on climate change, writes Lucas Bergkamp.

At a meeting last week, the Council adopted conclusions on “European climate diplomacy after COP21.” This self-congratulatory document celebrates the EU’s diplomatic success in Paris and suggests that more of the same will move the climate agenda forward. According to the Council, the EU-led “High Ambition Coalition” could secure “timely signature, swift ratification, and full implementation by all parties of the Paris Agreement.”

There is nothing in the conclusions, however, that could help to resolve the collective action problem that resulted in the Paris Agreement’s huge disparity between collective ambition and individual obligation.

While the agreement’s objectives are clearly ambitious, very little in the agreement is “legally binding.” At the US government’s insistence, the Paris agreement was rather conceived as a set of generic political commitments. So it is hard to see in what sense the mere repetition of prior commitments, dressed up with an even more ambitious and more unattainable objective, marks a “decisive turning point towards comprehensive and collective global action,” as the Council suggests.

With respect to the EU’s climate diplomacy action in 2016, the Council approves the development of an action plan focused around three main strands:

  • Maintaining climate change advocacy as a strategic priority in diplomatic dialogues, public diplomacy and external policy instruments;
  • Supporting implementation of the Paris Agreement and the intended nationally determined contributions (INDC), in the context of low-emission and climate-resilient development;
  • Increasing efforts to address the nexus of climate change, natural resources, including water, prosperity, stability and migration.

​While the first two strands are unsurprising and bland, the third one raises the spectre of climate change being drawn into broader social programs. Indeed, according to the Council, “the EU and member states’ development cooperation with third countries should fully take into account the existing synergies between climate objectives and the sustainable development goals as adopted by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”

The United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which reads like a high school ‘social justice’ project, sets out 27 goals, of which the fight against climate change is one, listed in 13th place among such other goals as fighting poverty and reducing inequality. This approach will backfire in at least two ways.

First, it will render climate action less effective, because it will have to serve many masters. Second, it will deprive climate action of its objective, science-based, and neutral aura, and subject it to the forces of political polarisation. This will fuel the suspicion that climate action is an ideological battle, not a scientific one. The EU’s substantial financial commitments towards developing countries will only further reinforce this suspicion.

Unfortunately, the Council’s position on the relation between climate change and international security further diminishes its credibility. Underlining the need to address the direct and indirect international security impacts of climate change, the Council recommends that the EU address “the potentially destabilising effects of climate change (including on migration, food security, reliable access to resources, water and energy, spread of epidemic disease, and social and economic instability).”

The EU would do better to focus its efforts solely on combatting climate change; immigration policy, for instance, is a politically charged and divisive subject that should not be blended with climate policy.

In short, the Council’s conclusions are a missed opportunity to remedy some of the weaknesses of the Paris agreement. Apparently, the Council believes, against all odds, that more of the same is required in the fight against all evil and against all odds. If the EU pursues this policy, it will likely adversely affect its credibility and the public’s confidence in EU policies, while increasing the influence of activist groups to the detriment of other constituencies, thus aggravating the democratic deficit.

National parliaments should firmly reject this approach. Instead, they should insist on a plan that addresses the Paris agreement’s inherent weakness, i.e. its lack of obligations binding on individual countries, and a plan that will result in equivalent, although not necessarily equal, efforts by non-EU countries.

If no such plan is feasible, there is a serious question as to whether the Paris agreement has a future.   The EU should therefore aim for more than vague climate diplomacy. It should establish a process aimed at creating a level playing field. Any such process needs to be sufficiently modest and pragmatic to garner political support, and sufficiently flexible so that new knowledge can be reflected.

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