Europe searches for a way to lead future climate talks

Still stinging from being sidelined at last month's U.N. climate summit, the European Union appears determined to reassert its leadership in upcoming global warming talks.

The European Union is preparing to decide whether it will raise the ante by increasing its own emission cuts. It also, according to an internal discussion paper, hopes to rally other countries to adopt the global blueprint that emerged from the U.N. conference.

Analysts insist Europe is and will continue to be a key player in the international climate talks, both because it runs the world's only functioning carbon market and because it has consistently set the world's standard for ambitious emission cuts. But a new negotiating force composed of China, India and other fast-growing, greenhouse gas-spewing nations emerged in Copenhagen. That, experts on both sides of the Atlantic say, leaves Europe still exploring its path for the future.

"We will always be part of the discussion, but where we will not be at the center is our ideas. We want to be at the helm," said Artur Runge-Metzger, the European Union's lead climate negotiator.

The document that world leaders created in Denmark, known as the Copenhagen Accord, calls for keeping the rise in global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius. Industrialized and major developing countries alike pledge to reduce emissions and to have those commitments reviewed internationally. Yet the agreement is nonbinding, meaning countries face no consequences for failing to live up to pledges. It also sets no global midterm or long-term reduction targets.


European leaders have widely acknowledged that accord fell short of their goals. And in the final, tense hours, Europe was shut out entirely as President Obama hammered out a deal with the leaders of China, India, Brazil and South Africa.

E.U. ministers will try to regroup in Seville

This weekend, E.U. environment ministers will meet in Seville, Spain, where a Copenhagen autopsy will likely top the agenda. Here in Washington, analysts blamed Europe's shaky position in Copenhagen on internal European dissent and some poor negotiating moves.

"They were terribly sidelined because, in a sense, they gave away any power they had," said Melinda Kimble, vice president of the U.N. Foundation.

European nations agreed in 2008 to unilaterally slash emissions 20 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. They also dangled a carrot, pledging to go to 30 percent if other major emitters made equivalent promises. Yet no one bit.

Analysts say European nations squabbled internally over the plan, there was no single clear leader representing the 27 member states at Copenhagen, and the bloc had no clear internal strategy for what pledges the United States, China or others should make to encourage Europe to move to a 30 percent reduction target.

"They spent a lot of time talking to each other at these meetings rather than doing outreach," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Kimble noted that a few months before the summit, Europe declared it wanted to devise a new "single legally binding instrument" that builds on the Kyoto Protocol. Then developing nations -- which hold the 1997 treaty dear because it enshrines the idea that only rich countries would be compelled to cut carbon -- read between the lines and accused Europe and the United States of wanting to "kill" Kyoto.

Developing countries became so angry that Europe was unable to act as a broker as the United States worked out its differences with China, Kimble said. At the same time, the bloc had little negotiating room within its own emissions plan.

Should the 'front-runner' compromise?

"We knew Europe's position, so there was nothing to negotiate," she said. "Europe played its one card with the U.S. and found itself not needed."

Runge-Metzger dismissed the idea that the European Union was sidelined, and pointed out that European leaders, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, were entrenched in talks the final day. Europe also negotiated key aspects of the finance and mitigation review sections that made it into the Copenhagen Accord.

"You'll find our fingerprints all over it," Runge-Metzger said. Ultimately, he and others contend, the problem was that Europe was simply not part of the problem. That is, in the final hours of the talks, "there were some tough questions in the end between the U.S. and China" that only those two countries could resolve.

"When you try to be always the front-runner, it's hard to get everyone to compromise with your position," he said, and described Europe's role in Copenhagen as "trying to bring the ambition into the negotiation."

Anthony Smallwood, spokesman for the European Commission delegation in Washington, D.C., agreed, saying, "Quite clearly, Europe was trying to lead by example, and we did lead by example."

This week, U.S. deputy climate envoy Jonathan Pershing praised Europe for the role it played in Copenhagen, saying the final accord "would not have happened but for the European Union. ... The E.U. has been the stalwarts, pressing for change."

BASIC members will plan their strategies in New Delhi

But Brazil, South Africa, India and China -- which together go by the acronym BASIC -- promise to be a growing force, leaving Europe's future role unclear. Leaders of the influential bloc plan to meet in New Delhi Jan. 24 to coordinate their response to the Copenhagen Accord.

The leaders of those countries, along with Obama, constitute a "new world order," argued Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute. Dubbing the group the "Copenhagen Five," or "C-5," Lash said recently that the nations represent "an extraordinary and powerful change." He added: "It isn't the old alliance reflected in the old G-8 meetings," composed mainly of America and Europe.

But the interests of BASIC members remain largely a mystery. Meyer, for one, noted that none of the four really represent other countries in their respective regions. And Runge-Metzger said that even within the group, "they are not a monolith. I think they have different views on how to move things forward."

For now, European leaders said, their role is continuing to push the world forward in accepting more ambitious emission cuts. An internal European Commission document calls for the European Union to "press ahead, building upon and strengthening the outcome of Copenhagen."

Outlining the bloc's next steps, commission leaders are calling upon the European Union to encourage as many nations as possible to submit targets to the United Nations by Jan. 31 and to "play a proactive role in strengthening and expanding support" for the Copenhagen Accord. That could include hosting a "Friends of the Accord" meeting early in 2010.

This weekend, the European Union could decide whether the Copenhagen Accord is ambitious enough to warrant boosting its targets. Germany has said it will stick to a more ambitious goal of 40 percent cuts by 2020 no matter what larger E.U. decisions are made, but a committee of U.K. ministers warned last week that greenhouse gas cuts in Britain would be "meaningless" without an international treaty.

Meyer raised the possibility that the European Union might boost its targets but do something shy of 30 percent. And, he said, while Europe may have a hard time planning its future role, it needs to find a way back into the climate game.

"You're not going to see Europe driving in the same way that you did in the history of this. Other players are bigger now, and you have a much more complex dynamic among the developing countries." But, he said, "They have to come back in, because they are still the most aggressive party."

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