World leaders will finally meet in Glasgow for COP26 next week after months of planning and amid important signals from previously climate-sceptic nations that they are now taking global warming more seriously.
At the U.N. General Assembly. Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged that China would stop funding new coal plants abroad but rolling blackouts in October have put Beijing”s timetable for ending the use of coal at home into question.In Turkey, President Erdogan finally ratified the Paris Agreement.
Meanwhile the panic about soaring gas, oil and electricity prices – though unrelated to the transition away from carbon – has put the need for genuine, sustainable, energy security under the spotlight.
But COP26 will inevitably disappoint in delivering clear pathways for the emissions reductions that the IPCC’s sixth assessment report suggests must be delivered in the next decade.
One of the key reasons for this is that despite the US having re-engaged internationally under the Biden administration – and pushing other states to go further and faster in their transition away from carbon – there is no clear programme of how the US is going to transform its own economy.
In order to get his budget through Congress, Biden appears to be scaling back even the cautious level of ambition in his clean energy programme. Why should others accept risks to their national industries’ competitiveness in moving first, when the world’s largest emitters are not yet setting out their stall?
Over to EU
This risks a post-COP26 slump in climate action. Once the excitement of Glasgow has passed, we will continue to face the realities of insufficient change, now in the knowledge that global leadership is not up to the task of handling the political and geopolitical challenges in tackling it.
This is where the EU will come into its own, as the facilitator of a more gradual green grand bargain.
As the first global player to lay out concrete plans on how to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels, in the European Green Deal announcements in 2020, and the Fit for 55 package this year, the EU has credibility where the US does not.
Further along in transition than many others, it is able to lead by example, to share and market its experiences. It is a major advanced economy, donor, and export market as well as a regulatory superpower. It can offer significant intellectual property, and infrastructure expertise essential to the transition away from carbon to countries with less developed plans.
The EU is not yet a geopolitical heavyweight, at the level of the US, able to bring a credible threat of using all aspects of its economic power collectively, to reinforce its negotiating position at COP26.
The divisions and disjointedness within the EU are too well known – both to the leaders of its own institutions tasked with attending the climate talks on its behalf, and to the governments of other countries.
European climate power is instead about the ability to deliver change at a more mechanical level, through the EU’s interactions with other countries – both those who are convinced of the need to transform their economies urgently, and those who are less so.
Ensuring through its trade tools such as CBAM that trading partners have no choice but to move away from carbon intensive production if they want to export to the EU.
Ensuring through developing European green tech capacity and innovation, and shoring up supply chains for necessary raw materials, that it is not only China that shapes the development on the technologies that are needed for a global revolution.
Through offering green financing and leveraging private sector investment so that the developing world can take advantage of the opportunities that they see in the green revolution.
Through re framing the concept of energy security to centre on clean energy and resource efficiency.
And through pushing for an exploration of what energy market reforms would most effectively boost the development of the renewable energy sector to meet the consequent demand for it.
The EU can support the UK’s COP Presidency, the COP secretariat and other global leaders such as the US in talking up the need for climate action in Glasgow next week.
But European climate leadership will come into its own after leaders have gone home, putting the full range of its external toolkit into action to engage with the re-balancing of geopolitics as the world transitions away from carbon.
Susi Dennison is the head of ECFR’s European Power programme.