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The EU and the progressive alliance negotiating in Durban: saving the climate?

Research reports

This Working Paper examines the behaviour of the European Union (EU) in international climate talks and explores how the EU could act as a positive force for creating consensus around collective action in the future.

The paper uses international relations theory to analyse the EU’s alliance with groups of developing countries in December 2011. This alliance facilitated a significant breakthrough in the talks: agreement on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, which commits Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to agreeing an inclusive global climate deal by 2015. 

The paper looksat how international relations theory can help us to understand the EU’s motivations and principles, and how these might influence its future stance in the climate talks. The climate change negotiations bring together parties with different approaches and interests related to: the science of climate change; objectives of international agreement; measures needed; burden sharing; and mechanisms to ensure compliance.

There are two schools of thought about the drivers of collective action. The realist school ofthought sees international negotiations primarily in terms of self-interest,with negotiators analysing the balance of gains and losses they are likely to experience. The constructivist or sociological school is more focused on how values and norms underpin the different positions. From a realist perspective, agreement is unlikely when countries believe they can gain a strategic advantage from non-cooperation (e.g. by benefiting from proprietary technology); from a constructivist perspective, agreement may result because of public pressure or a sense of international responsibility.

The EU’s engagement with developing country groups can be seen as largely normative (constructivist) in nature, since these countries are not large emitters or competitors for markets. The alliance was based on trust generated through previous partnerships (for example on development), and by the EU’s past commitments to emissions reductions and to fast-start finance. At the same time, the EU used its support for a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol as a bargaining chip, and in this sense adopted a realist approach.

The alliance provided legitimacy to convince others to agree to the establishment of the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. It guaranteed the EU a seat in the inner circle of the negotiations, from which, according to some, it was excluded in Copenhagen. The key question for the future is about the strategic choices the EU must make to foster eventual agreement. Is the realist or normative perspective more useful? And have the limits of existing partnerships been reached?

The paper concludes that both realist and normative elements will be needed. For the former options include conditionality for emissions targets and climate finance, new EU standards for carbon content and energy efficiency and various trade-related measures. On the normative side, emphasising the importance of climate science, encouraging an open negotiating process, supporting a possible opinion on climate change from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as proposed by Palau, and discussing non-legally binding commitments might all be possibilities.

Overall the EU will need a differentiated strategy of climate diplomacy for different groups of countries, especially to sustain the trust and the coalitions built up during the negotiations so far. Such climate diplomacy should take an inclusive view of international relations so as to include the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations as well as other international fora and linkages with economic, political and security issues.

Louise van Schaik