International action against climate change - can Europe lead?

This case study, written by research associate Claudia Gehlen under the supervision of Douglas Webber, professor of political science at INSEAD, examines the development of international action against climate change.

by Douglas Webber and Claudia Gehlen

The author focuses on the potential role of the European Union in this domain and asks whether, given the United States' hostility to mandatory international measures on climate change, the EU can provide effective international leadership on the issue.

Climate change arouses passionate opinions and divides scientists, politicians and public opinion alike. The debate revolves around the question of whether the changes witnessed in recent years are the result of human behaviour or a natural variation in climate, and what kinds of action should be taken to address the issue. A minority of scientists argue that the Earth has experienced many periods of warming in the past and that the current rise in temperatures is thus part of a natural cycle.

Nevertheless, there is a growing consensus that the world's climate is changing faster than expected and the greenhouse effect is generally considered to be the crux of the problem, disrupting ecosystems and the lives of an increasingly large proportion of the world's population as the incidence of famine and natural disasters increases.

Since the 1970s, Europe has played a vanguard role in organizing collective international action against climate change. In 1973 the EU adopted a first environmental action programme and in 1987 the Single European Act incorporated environmental policy into European treaties for the first time.

By the late 1990s, thanks to the influence of its environmentally-friendly northern European member states, the EU had established itself as a frontrunner in international environmental policy.

The international community first began to discuss taking collective action to combat climate change in 1992 at the United Nation's Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997. By the end of 2002 the first threshold for the protocol's entry into force - its ratification by 55 countries - had been attained and was seen as a landmark in international environmental cooperation.

It required industrialized countries to reduce their overall emissions of six greenhouse gases from 1990 levels, in accordance with individual targets, to reach an average reduction of 5.2% by 2012. The second threshold - its ratification by countries that were together responsible for more than 55% of all greenhouse gas emissions - was met when Russia ratified the protocol in October 2004.

The main obstacle to effective international action to combat climate change remains the American refusal to ratify the protocol. The Bush administration's reluctance is partly because the protocol does not require China, India and other developing countries to cut their emissions.

While the Chinese government has grown increasingly concerned about environmental pollution, it continues to oppose being obliged to take action against climate change. A World Bank report in 1997 estimated that air pollution cost the Chinese economy $US25 billion a year in health expenditure and lost labour productivity alone. The Indian government, keen to position the country as a 'soft power' in frontier areas of high technology, has increasingly turned to developing wind farms, hydropower and solid waste management.

The EU has been the principal driving force in the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol. It has managed to get Japan and Russia on board by making the treaty's provisions more flexible and less stringent. The case asks what, if anything, it can do to persuade or coerce the United States, China, India and other major polluters to take decisive action to combat climate change.

How likely is it to be able to ensure not only that the Kyoto Protocol is implemented, but also that further international agreements are made in the battle against climate change?


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