The EU and low expectations at COP26
Europe likes to see itself as leading the world to solutions for growing worries over climate change, the power of big technology companies and dissipating privacy. But the EU might not have much chance to shine in that preferred role during the ongoing COP26 talks to fight climate change.
Beyond its economic muscle, the EU sees its main strength on the world stage as its soft power as a rule-setter. This is especially the case as it presses for climate action.
Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s executive vice president for the environment-friendly economic modernisation called the Green Deal, believes the EU’s ability to demand CO2 cuts from others during the Glasgow conference comes from the bloc practising what it preaches.
The Commission launched its Green Deal in 2019 detailing how to clean the atmosphere without sacrificing economic development. A few months ago, a new battery of legislative proposals was tabled with the goal of reforming the transport, energy and construction sectors to help reduce 55% of the EU’s greenhouse emissions by 2030.
The timing was designed to ensure the EU had something to serve as an example to its peers during the COP26 meetings.
“We want to show the rest of the world that you can grow while cutting emissions,” an EU official said.
But the reality is that the EU is confronted with its own eternal contradictions.
The legislation proposed in the package will take a long time to be negotiated between the European Parliament and national governments, and division to be bridged are stark.
While French President Emmanuel Macron or care-taker German Chancellor Angela Merkel were urging global leaders to step up efforts to fight climate change, Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki was threatening to block movement over the EU’s demands to respect rule-of-law committments. Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Czechia’s Andrej Babiš are also questioning the bloc’s strategy.
But hope persists.
After months of negotiations, the EU and the US on Tuesday were expected to officially announce their pledge to cut methane emissions by 30% over the next 10 years – a cooperation of like-minded partners possible now that the White House is back in the game under President Joe Biden.
The EU also will be announcing a pilot project together with Germany, France and the UK to support South Africa’s transition away from coal by providing technical and financial assistance.
But with no overarching deal expected during the Glasgow conference, most of the pledges this year will come in the form of bilateral or multilateral agreements similar to the promise to South Africa.
The problem with all of this is that the pledges lack the enforcement prospects to prevent big announcements from just becoming empty declarations.
What the COP26 is really about
Most of the negotiations in Glasgow will be extremely technical and complex, although politically charged. One of the key goals is to settle crucial details like due dates for concrete targets.
Probably the most difficult conversation will be about setting the rules for a global market on carbon emissions.
“Make global carbon markets a reality. Put a price on carbon. Nature cannot pay that price anymore,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said.
The EU is showcasing its own carbon-price system as a success -in spite of recent criticism from some member governments- to pressure on other countries to copy its playbook.
A key conversation will revolve around money. Decarbonisation requires massive investments, which is particularly difficult for poor countries.
In 2009, the world’s rich countries committed to raising $100 billion dollars a year to help the most vulnerable countries with their green transition. They have been falling short, hence a push at COP26 to ensure the committed cash actually arrives.
What the Eurocrat also will be watching:
The spat between the UK and France over fishing is ongoing and disputes continue between the UK and the EU over the post-Brexit treatment of Northern Ireland.
French President Emmanuel Macron backed down on his threat to retaliate against the UK for restricting access for French boats in British water after meeting with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the COP26 sidelines . Talks continue this week in an atmosphere that also is in danger of overheating.