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Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional

Print version ISSN 0034-7329

Rev. bras. polít. int. vol.55 no.spe Brasília  2012


The contribution of the European Union on global climate change governance: explaining the conditions for EU actorness



The European Union (EU) is an unusual entity in world politics: not a fully-fledged state, but not just a classic international organization either. From an early stage, the EU has played what has often been considered a leadership role in global climate governance, pushing for ambitious international commitments. Sharing competences on climate politics with its member states, the EU's presence in the international climate regime does not replace but rather complements that of its 27 members. As a result, the EU's identity and role in the regime faces constraints that do not apply to any other party. In the paper published in Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional researchers analyse the distinctive characteristics of the EU as an international actor in the field of climate change, and seek to identify the factors which explain variation in the EU contribution to global climate change governance. Building on previous literature on the "actorness" of the EU, the article draws a distinction between the more formal characteristics of international actorness and the characteristics of international actorness in practice.

In the first instance, the article explores two formal requirements for actorness, namely, external recognition and capability. It looks at the EU's membership of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol, and seeks to identify how the EU's status as the sole regional organization member of this regime affects formal external recognition of the EU as part of global climate governance. It also assesses the power invested in the EU to act at the international level on climate change issues. Identifying the strong intergovernmental nature of EU external climate policy, the article explores how this impacts the dynamics of internal decision-making process, and the external representation of the EU.

The article argues that the EU meets only partially these formal pre-requisites for actorness. As a signatory of the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol, the EU has full membership of the international climate regime, which denotes complete external recognition of the EU as an actor in the regime at the same level as nation-states. Formal constrains are then of EU's capability to perform as such. As an area of share competence, responsibility over climate change issues is divided between the Union and its 27 member states. In the absence of exclusive legal competence, EU policymaking on external climate policy has a strong intergovernmental nature, in which member states, operating through the Council, play a pivotal role. These internal dynamics reflect on the EU's representation in the multilateral area, where again member states set the boundaries to the EU's capability to act. Nevertheless, in spite of legal and procedural constraints, the EU has been able to forge mechanisms that, in practice, support its unitary engagement in the international climate regime.

The authors conclude that, because of the strongly intergovernmental nature of EU participation in the climate regime, EU actorness depends crucially on internal cohesion and the external opportunity structure. For this reason, the article traces the development of EU participation in the climate regime from the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol to COP-17 in Durban in 2012, highlighting how the degree of external opportunity and the level of internal coherence have varied over time. Internal cohesion was limited during the 1990s, grew significantly over the 2000s, and has declined again in the period since 2009. By contrast, the external opportunity structure was most favorable for EU actorness during the 1990s and early 2000s, and grew less favorable in the period since 2008. In other words, internal cohesion and external opportunity are not correlated, and the changing patterns are helpful in explaining variation in EU actorness over time in the climate change regime.

Overall, the authors caution against viewing EU participation in the climate regime in simplistic, unitary terms. If we judge EU effectiveness and influence by the standards we apply to nation-states, we are likely to be disappointed by what we find. But viewed as a collection of nation-states with divergent interests and preferences, the EU contribution to the global governance of climate change has in fact been significant, though it has varied over time. The Durban climate change conference in December 2011 launched a new round of negotiations on a future climate change regime, and the EU was credited with playing a significant role in reaching a final deal at Durban. Despite shifting constellations of power and interest in the international politics of climate change, progress over the coming years in these negotiations is likely to depend in part on the continued ability of the EU to contribute to global action to combat climate change.



Carolina B. Pavese
Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics.

Diarmuid Torney
Energy, Environment & Resources Department of Chatham House, London.

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