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Unchartered territory or more of the same? The EU at COP28

  • by Joseph Earsom, ESPOL-LAB, Université Catholique de Lille

  • Reasearch article available here


On 30 November, parties will gather in Dubai for the 28th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). The annual meeting of this focal point for international climate governance is expected to address key issues like loss and damage, the potential phase out of fossil fuels, and the results of the first Global Stocktake of the Paris Agreement. Importantly, through these negotiations, parties will send signals about the current level of ambition regarding climate action and the broader potential for international cooperation at a time of heightened geopolitical tension.

While the impacts of the climate crisis continue to manifest themselves in Europe and around the World, current action and pledges remain spectacularly insufficient to reach the 1.5° target agreed upon at Glasgow. Negotiations remain tense on key issues, such as the loss and damage fund created at COP27. Furthermore, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to undercut international cooperation on climate, both in fora like the G20 and also indirectly via the ensuing energy crises. The war in Gaza further aggravates the situation as well, increasing tensions and potentially taking climate issues off the agenda in high-level diplomatic contacts. In that sense, despite the flashing alarms of climate science, the potential for an ambitious outcome in Dubai seems limited.

This context is particularly challenging for those parties seeking to play a leading role in the COP28 negotiations, such as the European Union (EU). The EU priorities for the negotiations include getting parties to commit to tripling global renewable capacity and doubling energy efficiency by 2030, along with a phase out of unabated fossil fuels and an immediate end to associated subsidies (Council of the European Union, 2023). Additionally, Climate Commissioner Wopke Hoekstra has promised a “substantial financial contribution by the EU and its Member States to the loss & damage fund at COP28” (European Commission, 2023). Indeed, the EU has in the past successfully adapted its climate diplomacy to challenging contexts both inside and outside the UNFCCC proper, notably after the COP15 Copenhagen debacle in 2009 and the election of Donald Trump (Bäckstrand & Elgström, 2013; Earsom & Delreux, 2021; Tobin et al., 2023). To do so, the EU has relied on a mix of its own ambitious internal legislation and example-setting, intensive diplomatic outreach and bridgebuilding with parties around the world (Oberthür & Dupont, 2021). Hence, on the one hand, there is precedent for the EU adapting to the tense negotiating environment and successfully achieving its objectives. On the other hand, however, internal EU developments and incoherence in its climate outreach call into question the extent to which it can drive international climate action in 2023.

Internally, the European Green Deal surely stands out as an unprecedented development of EU climate action. The associated European Climate Law, making net zero by 2050 legally binding, as well as  the target of 55% greenhouse gas reduction by 2030, and accompanying Fit for 55 Package, all demonstrate the EU’s internal ambition and commitment to climate action. However, cracks in this ambition are beginning to show. French President Emmanuel Macron’s call in May 2023 for a pause on environmental regulation and the recent legislative fight over the nature restoration law reveal increased political backlash against the European Green Deal and are perhaps also indicative of decreased public appetite for climate regulation, with European elections looming in June 2024. From a COP perspective, these developments could indeed affect high-level political support within the EU on key negotiating topics, as well as how the EU is viewed by other parties as a committed partner.

Regarding external action, two developments stand out, which could affect the EU’s success at COP28.  First, an EU climate legislation with strong external dimensions, such as the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), the proposed Net Zero Industrial Act, and external action instruments like the Global Gateway have not only raised questions of incoherence with the EU’s UNFCCC positions, but also have irritated third country partners and stimulated accusations of protectionism and climate colonialism (van Schaik & Cretti, 2023). Indeed, as the EU’s attempts to mainstream climate into the ensemble of its regulations and policies affect other areas of its external action, such as trade and development. While each has emerged in its own context and serves a particular purpose, potentially unintended consequences and conflicting priorities, particularly relating to justice and equity, could undermine cooperation with the EU’s Global South partners and challenge the bridge-building nature of EU diplomacy (Smith et al., 2023). Second, and relatedly, the EU lacks a strong centre of gravity driving its climate diplomacy to match this new expanded climate mainstreaming. Indeed, as the examples above show, climate diplomacy is increasingly cross-sectorial and on the agenda of an ever-increasing number of international fora. In that sense, it brings together even more stakeholders than it did in the leadup to the Paris Agreement, for example, where the EU successfully worked across its internal coordination structures in the diplomatic leadup to Paris (Delreux & Earsom, 2023).

Delivering such a comprehensive climate diplomacy requires strong coordination amongst the many stakeholders and sectors and a political centre of gravity (Oberthür & Dupont, 2021). For instance, my recent article in International Spectator demonstrates such challenges the EU has encountered in decarbonizing international transport. With the Foreign Affairs Council setting the EU broader climate diplomacy agenda and the Commission and the Working Party on International Environmental Issues – Climate Change driving the UNFCCC negotiations, there is a strong potential for mismatches in messaging and priorities at a moment when the UNFCCC negotiations touch on elements from nearly all aspects of society and governance. The arrangement is challenging in normal circumstances, but the departure of former Climate Commissioner Frans Timmermans for Dutch political aspirations has likely made the task even more difficult.

None of this is to say that the EU cannot or will not be successful at COP28. Rather, I have attempted to highlight that the elements upon which the EU has historically relied on to overcome challenging circumstances and drive international climate action are perhaps not present to the same extent in 2023 as in previous negotiations. In that regard, it remains to be seen if the cracks identified above are merely superficial or are in fact deeper. Considering the incredibly challenging geopolitical context of COP28, I would argue that EU success is not so much a question of the extent to which it meets its objectives at the negotiations but rather how it is perceived, particularly amongst the most vulnerable parties; whether or not it succeeds in ‘bridge building’; and the extent to which it is involved in the ‘end game’ push to craft the final communiqué and cover decision. Looking at these elements can provide a helpful glimpse into the EU’s position as a climate leader in 2023: “at a moment in which we have rapidly narrowing window to raise ambition and implement existing commitments in order to limit warming to 1.5.°


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