As diplomats entered the tense concluding hours of last year's climate change summit in Durban, South Africa, leaders of Europe's 27 member nations met for a final coordinating session. European Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard wanted to make something clear.
Europe was dangling a promise to sign onto future carbon cuts under the Kyoto Protocol. But in exchange, it wanted a road map with a clear deadline paving the way for a new global deal that bound all major emitters -- something India, China and the United States were resisting. Behind the scenes, according to several diplomats and activists, high-level members of the U.S. negotiating team were dismissing the European Union's demands as a bluff. In the end, many assumed, the European Union would do as it had before: cave to pressure.
Hedegaard said the European Union came to South Africa with a carefully planned strategy, and she never doubted the bloc's ability to stick to its guns. Nevertheless, she told ClimateWire in an interview yesterday, at that final strategy session, even she was compelled to double-check.
"I said to the ministers, 'I need to know now if any of you will be inclined to get soft in the very last minute, and if so, then say it.' And at this point, nobody was inclined to put up their finger," Hedegaard recalled.
"With the full backing of all 27, later that evening I went down to COP [Conference of the Parties] President [Maite Nkoana] Mashabane," the South African foreign minister who was chairing the U.N. climate talks. Hedegaard said she told Mashabane, "'I know that you think in the end you might be able to just play it, and Europe will give in. But you should know that we just had 27 getting together to discuss this, and there is total backing.'
In the end -- and after 30 hours of overtime that included a face-off between Hedegaard and Indian Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan -- Europe got most of what it wanted. Major emerging nations as well as the United States agreed to a work toward and adopt a new global pact by 2020 bringing all major emitters into its fold.
Longtime observers of the climate negotiations said the notion that Europe lacks backbone in climate talks might have always been more myth than reality. Nevertheless, they said, its tenacity in Durban effectively shattered any remaining perception of European softness. Now, many are looking to the blistering international fight over airline emissions to see if Durban was indeed indication of hard new resolve.
Will there be a 'backbone' for an airlines fight?
"Obviously, they haven't backed down yet. I think they are under the biggest pressure they've ever been under on anything climate-related than ever before," said Andrew Light, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "I think it's going to be very hard for them not to back down, but I've been impressed so far with how they've stood their ground. The whole world is against them on this."
The E.U. law, which took effect Jan. 1, requires airlines to account for all greenhouse gas emissions on flights into and out of Europe. China banned its airlines from taking part in the carbon emissions system, saying it will not pay the levies. The U.S. House also passed language barring American airlines from participating, though that language was not adopted in a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization approved yesterday. Meanwhile, Reuters reports that 26 countries that oppose the European Union's aviation plan will meet in Moscow on Feb. 21 to discuss a strategy.
"The belief is if they just complain about it enough, the Europeans will cave as they always do. I just don't see it. It's one thing to cave on multilateral negotiations, but it's another thing to cave when changing your duly elected law," said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The rap on Europe dates back to talks surrounding the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, when it was perceived as not pushing major developing countries hard enough to take firm commitments. At the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, it was widely viewed as raising expectations of delivering a new treaty yet operating without clear leadership. Much was made of the final hours of that conference, when President Obama huddled with the leaders of China, India, South Africa and Brazil -- but no European representative.
"Europe's whole essence of being is based on the presence of a bunch of individual sovereign nations coming together. They have a natural mindset, which is working together to find a common place," Schmidt said. "The common thinking, and I think this is kind of an urban myth, is that the E.U. always goes into climate negotiations talking a big game and at the end of the day gives up and gets something less than they're asking, whereas the U.S. is more willing to stand firm and make everybody else blink in the end."
Jennifer Haverkamp, international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, also dismissed the conventional wisdom about the European Union, calling it "pre-COP trash talk." But as a former U.S. trade representative in the Clinton administration, she acknowledged that negotiating with the European Union poses challenges, since it first has to engage in a lengthy internal process to develop a position.
"They often don't have a lot of leeway," she said.
This time, though, Europe had something others wanted: the re-upping of the Kyoto Protocol. In order to get it, major emerging countries would have to give up their protected status as nations not obligated to cut carbon emissions. Ultimately, analysts also noted, Europe had a buffer. Signing onto a second phase of Kyoto would not require anything more than the emission cuts the European Union had already signed into law domestically, while walking away from the treaty would likely do little political damage. And from European Commission President José Manuel Barroso on down, the European Union largely spoke with one voice.
Hedegaard said she said as much to a skeptical U.S. Special Envoy Todd Stern and Deputy Envoy Jonathan Pershing. "I had told them many months before Durban, 'Don't believe this is something just I or the Commission say. This is really the view of all 27.'"
E.U. forges a larger alliance
That strength, in turn, helped the European Union forge an alliance with small island nations, least developed countries and a handful of progressive-minded Latin American countries -- more than 100 in all -- that wanted an ambitious agreement, even if it meant breaking with allies in the G-77 like India and China.
That alliance, which grew out of a set of talks dubbed the Cartagena Dialogue to which the United States has never been invited, proved critical toward getting the final agreement now known as the Durban Platform.
Hedegaard says the tactic of demanding a new regime with broader emissions cuts from all parties was the right one for the environment, as well as for Europe.
"I thought it was very important for Europe to see itself how much you can actually achieve when you stick together," she said. "Throughout all the days in Durban, no matter who of us met from the European [delegation] would give more or less the same message."
She, too, described the aviation emissions law as Europe's next major step in proving its backbone on climate change. She argued that the European Union fought for more than a decade for a global effort through the International Civil Aviation Organization before crafting its own legislation, and lambasted claims from airlines and U.S. lawmakers that the law will cause a price spike. Asked if the European Union plans to stick to its guns on aviation, Hedegaard said, "I'm sure."
Her advocates in the climate world say they hope she's right. "I think the Europeans have learned a lesson from Durban, which is if they stand strong ... that they can get a clear outcome to move forward," Schmidt said.
Like what you see?
We thought you might.
Start a free trial now.