European Commission President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker. What should Juncker do to keep the bloc an effective global leader in the fight against climate change? Photo by: European Commission

Two major international agreements will be signed in 2015, making it an important year for climate change: a new legally binding global treaty on climate change and a new sustainable development framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals. Although both agenda are interlinked, negotiations on each are taking place in separate tracks. Overall success will be a direct function of the level of ambition on both sides of the equation.

Europe is set to play an important role in both negotiation processes. Climate change is at the center of the EU’s 2008 international security strategy and it is regarded as a “threat multiplier” — a global environmental and development challenge that will exacerbate instability and create humanitarian, political, economic and security risks affecting European interests.

Sustainable development and the fight against climate change are the EU’s overarching objectives as set by the Lisbon Treaty. Since 2009, Brussels has actively revamped its foreign policy architecture on climate action. It has refined its climate diplomacy strategy, made bold financial commitments to scale up climate financing until 2020 and mainstreamed climate change throughout its various budget instruments.

The Agenda for Change — the bloc’s guiding policy for programming EU aid — gives priority to sectors key to climate change mitigation and adaptation, and the newly created Partnership Instrument is designed to address major global challenges, including climate change.

However, and despite these efforts, all the “red lights” are flashing, as laid out in a recent paper by the European Centre for Development Policy Management on EU external climate action architecture.

EU member states continue to be divided over the 2030 climate and energy policy proposals made by the European Commission. On one hand, those from the Green Growth Group want clarity on the targets, as this would attract investment and increase the EU’s influence in international climate talks. Coal-reliant nations, meanwhile, argue exactly the opposite: setting an ambitious target would “leave the bloc with no cards to play.” By postponing a decision on the energy package to October 2014, member states will attend U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s climate summit with no agreed targets — and a weakened negotiation position.

Credibility on the line

One of the most criticized changes introduced by Commission President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker is the merger of the climate action and energy portfolios under a single commissioner, operating under the vice president for energy union. This raises two sets of concerns: the balance tilts sharply in favor of energy interests, and not having a dedicated climate change commissioner downgrades the EU’s political image at a very critical time.

Furthermore, the EU’s credibility as a global leader on climate action could be undermined by two nominations. Spain’s nominee for the energy and climate action portfolio, former agriculture minister Miguel Arias Cañete, was forced to sell his shares in two oil companies after he was criticized from all sides. And the nomination of former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk as president of the European Council casts doubt on the EU’s political leadership on climate, given Poland’s record of systematically attempting to hold back European climate policy.

The new Juncker Commission fails to link climate change with EU foreign policy. The mission letter sent to Arias Cañete, for example, makes no explicit reference to sustainable development or international security. Federica Mogherini, newly nominated as high representative, is entrusted with the project "EU: A Global Actor," but unfortunately it does not even mention EU's role in the fight against climate change. Regrettably, the connection between climate action and sustainable development is left to Neven Mimica, commissioner for development and international cooperation. Without political support at the highest level, the Croatian will have difficulty creating synergies between the post-2015 development agenda and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Tips for Juncker

If the EU wants to remain an effective global leader in fighting climate change, Juncker will need to backpedal and amend his Commission. How should he do this? Here are five concrete recommendations:

1. The new vice president for energy union should be upgraded to a vice president for climate action and energy union. This is a call made by Green10, a group of leading environmental NGOs active at EU level. Green10 also made a strong case for establishing a vice president for sustainability, who would coordinate the environment, agriculture, fisheries and regional policy portfolios.

2. The commissioner for climate action and energy will need to push for ambitious internal energy and greenhouse gas emission targets to be reached by 2030 — indeed, the EU’s credibility on the global stage depends on it. And the EU should send the unequivocal message that coherence and consistency among member states is crucial if it wants to deliver its overall commitment to sustainable development.

3. The high representative for foreign policy and security policy, meanwhile, should receive the mandate to work closely with the vice president for climate action and energy union, as well as with the commissioner on climate action and energy security — with a focus on the Sustainable Development Goals. This cannot be left to the development commissioner alone. Support from the high representative will be crucial toward ensuring that external climate action and sustainable development remain atop the EU’s foreign policy agenda.

4. The European External Action Services’ capacity in climate change should also be strengthened, both at headquarters level and within the EU delegations. The EEAS has a crucial role to play in steering coordination, across member states and across policy areas, breaking down the barriers between diplomats and experts working in different sectors from energy, climate change and transport to agriculture, food security and water.

5. Finally, the new commissioner for development and international cooperation will need to pursue further integration of the environmental and development agendas, ensuring that mitigation and adaptation, green investment, and sustainable growth feature highly in political dialogue processes.

Furthermore, and as argued by the European Think Tanks Group, the new EU development commissioner should push for the inclusion of specific goals on energy efficiency and renewable energy in the post-2015 agenda and subsequent SDGs. There is no time for trial and error.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Alisa Herrero Cangas

    Alisa Herrero Cangas is a policy officer at ECDPM and is based in Brussels. With a background in international relations and development, studying at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and the London School of Economics, she specializes in the interinstitutional aspects of EU external relations and in EU development cooperation.
  • Hanne Knaepen

    Hanne Knaepen is an ECDPM policy officer, focusing on climate change issues within the program on regional and local markets for agriculture development and food security. She received her doctorate in Global Environmental Studies from Kyoto University, Japan, where she resided for a period of four years.