Europe Can Do Better

Since 2005, the European Union and China have sought to develop dialogue and cooperation in the area of climate-change policy. This has taken place primarily within the framework of the EU-China Partnership on Climate Change, agreed at the 2005 EU-China Summit. Within this framework, both sides have developed institutionalised dialogue as well as cooperation in specific areas. On paper, this cooperation looks impressive.

Senior officials from both sides meet annually, and a ministerial policy dialogue was established in 2010 between European climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard and vice-minister Xie Zhenhua, China’s lead negotiator for climate change. The two sides have also initiated institutionalised dialogue in a number of related areas, including environmental policy, forests, energy, transport and, most recently, sustainable urbanisation.

Alongside the development of these numerous mechanisms for policy dialogue, the EU and China have also launched cooperation projects in a range of areas related to climate change, including the so-called “Near-Zero Emissions Coal” project focused on carbon capture and storage and the “Europe-China Clean Energy Centre” in Beijing. Other areas for cooperation include the Clean Development Mechanism, capacity-building for policy development and most recently the development of emissions trading in China.

From a European perspective, the aim of developing this engagement was to facilitate and support the development of domestic climate-change policies in China, and to persuade the Chinese government to adopt emissions targets as part of a global climate-change agreement for the period beyond 2012, when the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol expires. This formed part of a broader EU strategy of developing bilateral outreach with key countries including the United States, China, India, Brazil and South Africa.

However, this strategy contributed relatively little to the EU’s ability to shape the international climate negotiations in accordance with European goals. Nowhere was this failure more evident than at the Copenhagen climate-change conference in December 2009. European preferences were clearly at odds with those of other major players, and a failure to understand and appreciate these differences was in part responsible for the EU’s marginalisation at the summit. While the EU played a more prominent role at the subsequent Cancún and Durban climate-change conferences, the Copenhagen experience has cast a long shadow over European climate diplomacy.

Part of the explanation for the limited impact of European “climate diplomacy” undoubtedly lies in the declining power of the EU in world politics, a process accelerated by the global financial crisis since 2008. It is also true, of course, that the EU often finds it difficult to “speak with one voice” at the international level.

However, while there is some truth in these perspectives, they miss an important weakness in the European Union’s approach to international climate politics. To really move forward, the EU must develop a deeper understanding of the positions and underlying domestic politics of other major players. Put simply, the recurrent focus on whether the EU succeeds in “speaking with one voice” in its interactions with the outside world neglects the issue of whether, to what extent, and how the EU “listens” to the interests and preferences of other countries. This has been a particularly prominent problem in its external relations on climate change.

The development of cooperation on climate change with China could have provided the EU with the means by which to develop a deeper strategic understanding of Chinese preferences with respect to climate-change policy, and the domestic politics and institutional actors underpinning those preferences. Such an understanding could help in the formation of EU strategies in the international negotiations. And, with respect to bilateral cooperation, it could provide a fuller picture of where, how—and importantly, why—Chinese and European positions converge or diverge. This is particularly important for the EU’s relations with China, since the nature of the Chinese political system renders it more difficult to understand for European policy-makers.

However, the EU-China relationship has generally failed to deliver this kind of deeper understanding to European policymakers.

One difficulty on the EU side is a lack of institutional resources. In practice, responsibility for managing EU engagement with China lies with the the European Commission’s Directorate General for Climate Action (DG Clima). However, the resources devoted by the European Commission to engagement with China on climate change are simply not sufficient.

The EU Delegation in Beijing employs one counsellor dealing with environment and climate change; one half-time officer reporting to the Directorate-General for Energy (DG Energy); and a small number of staff responsible for cooperation projects. In Brussels, DG Climate Action employs almost no staff with responsibility to manage or track the bilateral relationship. More staff are needed if the EU expects to gain significant added value from its engagement with China on climate change.

This feeds into a second problem, namely that the EU-China relationship is highly fragmented along two dimensions. First, it is fragmented between EU-level engagement with China and that of the member states. This is not necessarily a bad thing; indeed, there may be advantages to many diverse mechanisms of cooperation, provided that unnecessary duplication of effort is avoided.

Second, it is fragmented between policy areas, with separate dialogues for climate change, energy, transport, environment, forests and sustainable urbanisation. Similarly, fragmentation of this kind is not in itself a problem. Developing cooperation and dialogue across a range of related but distinct policy fields opens the possibility for greater impact, and may succeed in making progress in less politically sensitive areas than in the sometimes highly-charged field of climate policy.

However, such fragmentation becomes a problem if it creates duplication of effort, and especially if it exceeds the resources and capacity of the institutional actors on the EU side which have been tasked with coordination and ensuring synergies and coherence. An institutionalised coordination mechanism exists “on the ground” in Beijing in the form of regular meetings of European Commission and EU member state environment counsellors, coordinated by the EU delegation.

However, these coordination efforts appear to have brought limited benefits so far. In fact, it is hard even to assess whether and to what extent the totality of EU cooperation and dialogue with China on climate change is synergistic, since there is no publicly-available list of the totality of EU activities in China in this area.

There is, moreover, a broader institutional problem with respect to EU climate diplomacy, which stems from the division of labour between DG Climate Action and the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s new diplomatic service. Under these new arrangements, EU external relations on climate change are almost exclusively the responsibility of DG Climate Action.

Bringing together all of the climate-change functions of the Commission within one DG brings some benefits, but it also has the negative effect of hindering integration of climate change with into the broader framework of EU external relations. Moreover, it reinforces the tendency to view climate change as a distinct, technical area of policy-making which is the remit of specialists, rather than viewing it in broader strategic terms.

Developing effective engagement with China and other key countries on climate change should be a priority of EU external relations on climate change. The agreement reached at the Durban climate-change conference in December 2011 represents only the beginning of another long negotiating journey. If the EU hopes to be successful in influencing the outcome of these negotiations, it would benefit greatly from deepening its understanding of the preferences and domestic politics of other key players. This will not happen unless the EU finds a way to manage better its currently underdeveloped bilateral engagement with China and other key states.

Diarmuid Torney is a post-doctoral fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin. His research interests include global environmental politics and EU relations with China and India.