COP 26, A Missed Opportunity for the EU to Demonstrate Moral Climate Leadership?
The European Union (EU) seeks to portray and position itself as an international leader in global climate politics and action. Scholars have identified that the EU’s particular strength in global climate politics is in exemplary leadership, exercised, for instance, through its promulgation of “science-based’’ climate targets and timetables and its encouragement of other actors to emulate it. COP 26 in Glasgow, postponed by a year from 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, represented the first major test of the Paris Agreement. The climate COP in Glasgow was an opportunity for the EU to demonstrate exemplary leadership, both on historical issues of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and on emerging moral issues such as financing for countries already experiencing losses and damages due to climate change. This article will argue that while the EU did exercise some exemplary leadership at COP 26 with regards to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, it ultimately did not demonstrate exemplary leadership on the moral issue of financing for climate Loss and Damage.
Parties to the Paris Agreement had agreed to review and revise their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) every five years, hence countries had to submit revised NDCs in the lead up to COP 26. The EU announced its ambition to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent through the European Green Deal. This ambition was reflected in the EU’s updated NDC submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in December 2020. EU member states committed to a binding target of a net domestic reduction of at least 55% in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, compared to 1990. In the lead up to COP 26, the EU could be considered to have been exercising some degree of exemplary climate leadership with its ambition to transform Europe, the continent that was the first to industrialise using fossil fuels, into the first climate-neutral continent.
Despite its ambitions to be a climate leader and its historical strength in leading by example, it can be argued that the EU ultimately did not demonstrate exemplary moral leadership at COP 26 when it decided not to support financing for climate Loss and Damage.
However, according to an analysis from the Climate Action Tracker (CAT), the EU’s climate policies and commitments were inconsistent with the Paris Agreement’s more ambitious goal of limiting global warming from exceeding 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The EU was not the only international actor with insufficient climate ambition as a report from the UNFCCC published in the lead up to COP 26 showed that NDCs from all 192 parties to the Paris Agreement taken together may lead to a global temperature rise of about 2.7°C by the end of the century. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had warned that global warming exceeding 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels would result in catastrophic consequences. Hence, one of the important issues at stake during COP 26 was the raising of climate ambition globally to keep the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels within reach.
The initial days of COP 26 were marked by a flurry of announcements that seemed to signal the raising of climate ambition internationally. For instance, the EU and the United States of America (USA) announced the Global Methane Pledge, with the aim to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), methane accounts for about 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions and has an atmospheric heat-trapping effect that is more than 25 times as potent as that of carbon dioxide. Thus, cutting methane emissions is, as stated by European Commission (EC) President Ursula von der Leyen at COP 26, “one of the most effective things we can do to reduce near-term global warming,” and she called it “the lowest hanging fruit.” The announcement of the Methane Pledge demonstrated the EU and the USA’s attempts to be climate leaders at COP 26. However, while the Methane Pledge is a step forward in climate ambition, there are caveats to it. The commitments under the Methane Pledge are voluntary. Furthermore, major emitters like China, Russia, India, and Australia did not sign up to the pledge.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson fist bumps Joe Biden the President of the United States in front of the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen. @flickr
Notwithstanding the positive announcements, COPs are ultimately judged by their outcomes. The EU’s performance as a climate leader at COP 26 must therefore be assessed against the outcomes from Glasgow. Despite its ambitions to be a climate leader and its historical strength in leading by example, it can be argued that the EU ultimately did not demonstrate exemplary moral leadership at COP 26 when it decided not to support financing for climate Loss and Damage. Climate change is already causing losses of lives and livelihoods. These losses and damages are being experienced most keenly in developing countries, even though these countries have historically contributed least to causing climate change. An example is the Philippines, which was struck by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 that killed over 6000 people and caused approximately USD 2 billion in damages. For this reason, developing countries have been asking developed countries who historically contributed most to causing climate change to provide financing to address these climate losses and damages. Financing for climate Loss and Damage is arguably an emerging moral issue in global climate politics as the discourse and media attention around it is increasing.
The pledges of Scotland and Wallonia demonstrate the agency of subnational governments in Europe, and their capacity to demonstrate exemplary moral leadership on climate change when national European governments and the EU fail to do so.
In the lead up to COP 26, the Climate Action Network (CAN), a global network of civil society and non-governmental climate organisations, and its allies initiated a campaign to pressure developed countries to provide financing to address climate Loss and Damage. The campaign for Loss and Damage financing gained media attention and was then taken up by developing countries during COP 26. During COP 26, the G77 (Group of 77, a coalition at the United Nations of initially 77 and currently 134 developing countries) and China bloc of developing countries put forward a proposal for a financing facility for climate Loss and Damage. This proposal was ultimately rejected due to opposition from developed countries. The final decision at COP 26 instead was to set up a dialogue to discuss loss and damage funding and to operationalise and finance the Santiago Network on Loss and Damage that will catalyse technical support on the issue. The mention of Loss and Damage in a COP outcome decision is a sign of progress on an issue that had previously been marginalised from core negotiations. Countries that are already experiencing losses and damages due to climate change and which will face more severe consequences in the years ahead, however, need more than technical support and dialogues. The issue of Loss and Damage finance was therefore one on which the EU arguably missed an opportunity to demonstrate exemplary moral climate leadership.
At the same time, two subnational European governments stepped up and made dedicated financial pledges to address the issue. The regional government of Scotland became the first to pledge money specifically for Loss and Damage. By the end of COP 26, Scotland had committed GBP 2 million to address Loss and Damage. The subnational government of Scotland had mostly been sidelined in the organisation of COP 26, which was presided over by the national government of the United Kingdom (UK). Scotland however sensed an opportunity at COP 26 to demonstrate exemplary moral leadership on an issue essential for climate justice. By making its Loss and Damage finance pledge, Scotland sent a powerful political signal to the national UK government and the rest of the world. Scotland’s exemplary leadership on Loss and Damage finance at COP 26 was followed by another subnational European government, Wallonia of Belgium, which pledged EUR 1 million to address the issue.
Scotland and Wallonia were among the first two world regions to industrialise using fossil fuels and to enjoy the benefits of industrialisation. With this in mind, it is notable that the two subnational governments recognise their historic responsibility towards causing climate change and are pledging money to address climate Loss and Damage. The pledges of Scotland and Wallonia also demonstrate the agency of subnational governments in Europe, and their capacity to demonstrate exemplary moral leadership on climate change when national European governments and the EU fail to do so. As subnational governments have fewer sources of income than national governments do, as such their financial contributions towards addressing climate Loss and Damage will ultimately be limited and insufficient to meet the needs of developing countries. On the other hand, they are sending political signals that may ultimately help spur national governments in Europe and the EU itself to finally commit funding to address climate Loss and Damage.
In summary, despite the EU’s portrayal and positioning of itself as a climate leader, it did not lead by example on the emerging moral issue of supporting financing for climate Loss and Damage at COP 26. The EU did demonstrate some leadership on climate ambition at COP 26, notably with the announcement of the Global Methane Pledge. The Methane Pledge, however. does have important caveats as was previously discussed, and, even if implemented fully, would only reduce global warming by around 0.1 to 0.2°C by 2050. While every fraction of a degree counts towards addressing the climate ambitions, far more significant carbon reductions are needed globally. As of the end of COP 26, all NDCs submitted by countries still put the planet on track for approximately 2.2 degrees of warming by the end of the century, according to research from Climate Action Tracker.
The final decision from COP 26 called on parties to the Paris Agreement to “revisit and strengthen” their 2030 targets by the end of 2022 to align them with the treaty’s temperature goals. The EU can lead by example by increasing the ambition of its NDC to align it with the goal of preventing global warming exceeding 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The EU can also demonstrate exemplary moral leadership and commit financing to address climate Loss and Damage in developing countries. The subnational European governments of Scotland and Wallonia have already initiated leadership on the issue. The EU can take up the cause and, in doing so, also put pressure on other advanced industrialised countries, such as the USA, to accept their historical responsibility for causing climate change and provide financing for developing countries to address climate Loss and Damage. The eyes of the world will now turn towards COP 27 in Egypt in 2022 where the EU and other governments worldwide need to rise to the challenge of mitigating the intensifying climate crisis, and provide support to those already losing their lives and livelihoods to climate change.