Durban and the normative EU power

Posted on 09. December 2011

by Zuzana Novakova

Zuzana NovakovaUnlike the Copenhagen conference in 2009, the ongoing UN Climate Summit in Durban, South Africa, is passing without much media or public attention. However, there is quite a lot in the game, particularly as the Kyoto protocol, the only international agreement defining emission reductions and the cornerstone of climate negotiations, expires in 2012. Replacing the mandatory provisions, to which most developed countries committed themselves in Kyoto, seems a game with unclear end results. As recent failures to do so in Copenhagen and Cancun suggest, reaching any progressive political consensus seems unlikely. On the other hand, a report by the World Meteorological Organization warns that CO2 emissions reached record levels last year, contributing to climate change, the emergence of increasingly extreme weather and natural disasters. If negotiators in Durban once again fail to reach an agreement, it might lead to a loss of faith in the negotiating process, which, in turn, will likely result in significant implications at different levels.

What role should the EU assume in this process? The Union, with its relatively high environmental goals and progressive greening agenda, has already offered to do much more than other rich countries. Contrary to when the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997, Europe is no longer responsible for the majority of the world’s CO2 emissions. In fact, it managed to reduce its share to 11 percent of global emissions and has committed to further reductions. However, the EU has a bigger role to play than simply cleaning its own back yard. Bottom of Form. Some academics have coined the EU as a normative power, an actor performing as a norm entrepreneur and diffusing standards to the global arena; norms which will then cascade down the system and sediment.

Thus far, on environmental concerns, the EU has assumed this role confidently and has been speaking with one voice, unlike in many other UN forums.  Its delegation arrived to Durban with a draft roadmap, which should pave the way for another round of global commitments to combat global warming. The roadmap should be in force until the crucial players agree to subscribe to binding agreements. That is not likely to happen before 2015, according to Runge-Metzger, the EU’s main negotiator. Prior to introducing the roadmap at the summit, informal meetings were held with 35 ministers worldwide, securing the support of regional powerhouses such as Brazil, Chile, Mexico, South Africa, South Korea, as well as gaining support from an  alliance of small island states that will be most affected by climate change.

The roadmap marks the sternest approach that the EU has taken so far on the topic. After a decade of seeking to find compromises between the often opposing views of the ‘rich’ global North and ‘poor’ South, it strongly requests that the developing countries take on binding provisions as well. Connie Hedegaard, the European Commissioner for climate action, stresses the necessity for legal parallelism. Therefore, previous agreements relying on binding commitments for the North to reduce CO2, while those of the South relied on a voluntary basis only, seem outdated. If the main goal is to successfully combat climate change, then all polluters need to cut down on their emissions in a binding form. The commitments need not be the same, but should all be equally binding on the signatories. However, this may be especially contentious for the new economic (super)powers – Brazil, China, India, and South Africa.

The main opponent of legal parallelism is China. It has suggested that developing countries should be allowed to submit milder plans without the same legal force, which would be voluntary, or only mandatory at the national level. This proposal has been supported by India, another crucial emerging economy. Moreover, another challenge facing the EU’s proposals has emerged from the undisciplined ‘big guys’ from the global North, particularly the US, Russia, Canada and Japan, who have been persistently reluctant or unable to endorse a second agreement on cutting down air pollutants. While Beijing is only willing to talk seriously if Washington does, Moscow, Tokyo and Ottawa do not see possibilities for progress without accession of these two biggest polluters who are responsible for almost 40 percent of CO2 emissions.

As the Polish presidency of the EU remarks, it would make no sense if other big economies did not join the effort and only the EU undertook further commitments to extend the Kyoto protocol. In addition to the challenges mentioned above, the ongoing complex negotiations present a challenge for EU to prove its capabilities as a normative power.