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No Time to Rest: Leadership Required in EU Climate Diplomacy after Paris

The Agreement reached at the COP21 in Paris last December was, by almost any standard, a landmark agreement and the successful culmination of years of tedious negotiations. The Paris Agreement commits 187 nations to a common objective, namely, a world with warming limited to well below 2°C, and climate neutrality achieved in the second half of the century. The EU and its Member States can claim to be major contributors to this success as they managed to keep a united front, despite differences among Member States on subject matter, despite the strong headwinds and turbulent times in other policy fields, and despite the tendency of the Common Foreign and Security Policy to break up into less common, national government-driven positions whenever things get tough. On the contrary, at the COP21, diplomats put into action a smart negotiation strategy to build the ‘High Ambition Coalition’, which managed to break up the long-standing divide between developed and developing countries. This has been also a success of EU institutions, notably the Commission and the EEAS, who worked towards a common position across Member States from early on in the process, and of the Member States themselves, who contributed resources and political commitment to the cause.

However, the ultimate success of the Agreement hinges on implementation. (I)NDCs, the contributions countries have committed to, are insufficient. The Agreement contains many elements to ensure that the objectives will eventually be achieved, but it will require a sustained effort in the years to come. EU Climate Diplomacy will need to keep up the positive momentum. Its FAC Conclusions from 15 Feb 2016 recognize this and pledge continued efforts to keep climate change a strategic priority to support implementation of the Paris Agreement and to address the climate-stability nexus. It will be crucial for the FAC to follow up on its intention to elaborate a more concrete, more comprehensive and more ambitious action plan – building on the rather fuzzy list of activities mentioned thus far. Here are some important elements for doing so:

  • Build a strategic vision and narrative for implementation of the Paris Agreement. Looking beyond the negotiations themselves, diplomats can help build and communicate a visionary narrative, or rationale, on the sense and the benefits for each country to work towards the Agreement’s objectives. It must become a cornerstone of climate thinking that the vast majority of emissions reductions needed can be done in ways that are beneficial to individual countries, e.g. by creating new jobs, improving the quality of life or increasing the competitiveness of the economy. Even more so when taking a broader perspective of the values, costs and benefits at stake, of distributional and other ethical considerations, and of international climate finance available.
  • Identify and support ambitious alliances. More emphasis needs to be placed on cooperating with a number of different partners and alliances – the importance of such an approach became obvious in Paris. For example, this is true for the private sector as a key driver of innovation. Another example is the G20 forum, comprising the major emitters needed for taking decisive action for a climate neutral world. The current Chinese and the upcoming German presidency can help to keep the momentum of the Paris negotiations going. A blind spot is still to how to better integrate climate-friendly action across other policy fields, such as trade and investment, energy, etc.
  • Join forces and step up coordination among Member States. Synergies need to be exploited to achieve more with the same input. The Green Diplomacy Network has been pivotal, instrumental and promising in coordinating positions and sharing information, but this momentum is often lost at the embassy level. Delegations and embassies can share their information and planned activities better and more regularly. Activities could be undertaken jointly - there have been useful initiatives last year, e.g. during the Climate Diplomacy Day - and efforts shared rather than doing the same work twice (or twenty-eight times).
  • Ensure strong domestic action to build on. The messages diplomats want to bring across can only resonate if they are credible. And for that, the EU and its Member States will have to take steps to align their action at home and their domestic policies with the Agreement’s long-term objectives. This will not only foster credibility, but also enable diplomats to make the case more strongly that the type of action they demand is feasible, and allow them to illustrate examples that can serve as building blocks for action elsewhere.
  • Further improve climate diplomacy capacities of delegations. Delegations can be a key part to facilitate implementation but require input and training – also in view of rotating staff. Also they need a clear signal that they need to keep up the good work on climate action. The regular provision of information, with blueprints for activities and with regularly conducted briefings and discussion formats are key to update delegations on subject matters as well as to foster delegation-to-delegation exchange of experiences. Also, a reporting blueprint to sensitize diplomats to climate impacts could help diplomats to interpret and communicate climate-related information better. It can also enhance the EU Conflict Early Warning System, which currently does not adequately integrate climate and environmental risks.

These elements can form a robust basis to prepare the EU for the year 2018 where the first stocktaking will indicate whether Paris really can be considered as a success. But, one thing is already clear: it would send an unacceptable, contradictory signal to partners around the globe if the EU backtracks on its own levels of engagement and puts climate diplomacy on the backburner.