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By Oliver Geden
Since the COP 17 climate negotiations at Durban optimism is back again – at least in public speeches and official documents. But in private, many within the larger climate policy community think that U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations will probably fail again.
What might happen in that case? And what could it mean for the European Union, the leader in international climate policy?
Let’s assume: After more than two decades of largely fruitless debate and negotiation, international climate diplomacy falls into a deep crisis in 2015.
At the decisive COP 21 any hope of concluding and ratifying an ambitious and comprehensive climate treaty equipped with effective sanctions turns out to be illusory. Global greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 40 percent since 1990 and a turning point is nowhere in sight.
This is a problem not only for the global climate but particularly for the European Union, which has invested a great deal of political capital in climate diplomacy and tied its own greenhouse gas reduction targets very closely to progress at the international level.
In the years following the failed Copenhagen climate summit, permanent stalemate at the U.N. talks and constantly rising global emissions may lead step by step into a crisis of the existing top-down approach led by Europeans and climate scientists.
That approach starts by defining a limit for tolerable global climate change, from which the world’s remaining “emissions budget” until 2050 is calculated and shared out among the 194 states through the UN framework. Confidence in the problem-solving capacity of this approach may have dramatically collapsed by 2015 and climate policy would then enter a new phase where two fundamental options are conceivable.
In the worst case, climate policy itself comes to an end, with decades of climate alarmism quickly flipping into fatalism. The EU cannot have any interest in such a development, neither wishing to see its role as global climate policy leader degraded nor its lead in building a green economy lost.
After the failure of the “ideal” but politically unviable top-down approach, the EU will have to present “second-best” solutions. That would mark “the end of climate policy as we know it”.
Without a paradigm shift, the path of climate diplomacy leads directly into self-inflicted irrelevance and “the end of climate policy”. The well-practised strategy of papering over current failures by announcing even greater future efforts cannot be maintained for long with the 2 degree target formally accepted at Cancún in 2010.
As soon as science tells us that reaching the 2 degree target is impossible, the top-down paradigm will eventually fall apart.
In that case, confidence in the ability of international climate policy to produce solutions erodes away, as does the willingness for global cooperation. Fatalism spreads. Plans for ambitious emissions reductions fall off national political agendas and instead nations concentrate almost exclusively on increasing their own ability to adapt to climate change; some seek salvation in geo-engineering.
The EU would then be forced to change its internal plans. This would not only affect the ambitious reduction targets for 2050; any willingness to defining binding climate and energy targets for 2030 would be greatly weakened.
And the loss of legislative continuity in the threefold targets (emissions, renewables and energy efficiency) for the period after 2020 would create considerable planning insecurity for businesses. Investment would cease and the transformation to a European low-carbon economy would be interrupted if not terminated.
THE PLAN B
Politically, the EU is too weak to prevent the crisis of international climate policy worsening in the coming years. It therefore at least needs to prepare a “Plan B” in good time, before the top-down paradigm implodes spectacularly – and takes the EU’s climate policy ambitions with it.
At the heart of a bottom-up paradigm, whose contours are only just emerging, would be the guiding principle “the less (emissions/climate change) the better”. Measurable progress on decarbonising the major economies would be weighed much more heavily than negotiations about comprehensive global climate treaties or agreement on fine-sounding long-term international targets.
The shift from top-down to bottom-up is in essence a mental shift that reinterprets the problem and strategies for reaching solutions, but also manages to safeguard the legitimacy of existing instruments (such as emissions trading).
If the EU wishes to stay the course of economic transformation and remain relevant on the international stage, and at the same time contain global climate change, then it will first of all have to reconsider the framework in which it applies individual regulatory and diplomatic instruments.
Programmes for adapting to climate change will acquire greater importance, as will flexible and incentive-led cooperation between individual industrial economies and developing countries. Progress on reducing global emissions can only occur if the policies involved could be integrated by key players like the United States, China and India.
The challenge for the EU therefore consists not least in proving that climate policy is economically and technologically feasible, with co-benefits for energy security.
The EU will in the future have to understand and present climate policy primarily as “politics”, and less as a matter of implementing scientifically defined objectives with maximum efficiency. Instead of succumbing to the pressure of a deterministic governance model, the EU must take the practical restrictions of the international system seriously and openly admit that “optimal” solutions cannot be realised in climate policy.
Oliver Geden is a senior research fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. A more indepth version of his argument is available as part of SWP’s study,“Expect the Unexpected. Ten Situations to Keep an Eye on”.