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Leading on Climate Change

Paul Gillespie

European Climate Leadership in Question: Policies toward China and India, by Diarmuid Torney, MIT Press, 304 pp, $30, ISBN: 978-0262527828

The COP21 Paris climate change summit which concluded in December is regarded correctly as an endorsement of international diplomacy despite the failure to agree legally binding targets to reduce global warming gases. Skilfully chaired by the French foreign minister and his diplomatic team they brought all the international actors in this ecological drama together on a text that will be regularly revisited and will command more political attention than before. Most of these actors are states, ranging from the largest and most powerful to the smallest and most vulnerable to climate change disasters. But the summit was also a focus for the biggest interest groups and corporate entities involved, as well as for the many campaigners and NGOs demanding faster and more radical action than any of these.

Another prominent player in Paris was the European Union. It was not quite in the foreground compared to the French, US, Chinese, Brazilians or Indians but played an important role in coordinating its twenty-eight member-states’ participation. Within its councils and bureaucratic machinery these now have to negotiate the detailed commitments made and how they will be distributed among them. The EU thus plays a dual role in this process: externally representing the combined positions of its members according to its competences, and internally by implanting the Paris goals and going beyond them as they can agree. Given the urgency of the issues at stake on both counts it is important to understand how climate change matters are organised within the EU and what clout it has to get its way on them at the international level.

Diarmuid Torney’s book makes an important and original contribution to the tasks of comprehending and analysing this central challenge to human survival and political order in the coming century. It is squarely based on the international relations literature dealing with inter-state relations and with transnational institutions such as the EU acting in global politics. The direct focus on climate change arises from that academic location. A sophisticated conceptual framework organises the study, which concentrates, as the title indicates, on the EU’s international leadership role in this sphere, particularly relating to China and India. The framework is oriented empirically, directing Torney to detailed case studies of how the EU’s climate change policies have evolved in response to trends in European and world politics and then to how Brussels actually handled relations with China and India in that context. As he explains, such a large field necessarily requires a certain selectivity. He concentrates on the European Commission’s activities rather than the totality of the member-states’ involvement. This limits the study’s scope, but it allows him to highlight the Commission’s leadership role with China and India, which as he puts it, is “interesting both theoretically and empirically”. He says the principal contribution made by his book is to develop “a relational understanding of the character and degree of EU international leadership on climate change”. Putting the subject in a global context makes this study a contribution to a wider field dealing with questions of power and influence at world level – including especially those relating to the United States.

The theoretical and analytic tools Torney uses to investigate are set out in chapter 2 of a book that originated as a PhD thesis at Oxford, followed by postdoctoral study in the Freie Universität Berlin and several other centres. The rigour and discipline required to organise the study come from that training and enhance its insights. His analytic framework deals with the main internal drivers of EU engagement with China and India, defined as normative commitment, material interest and polity-building. Normative here refers to standards or norms, with an ethical dimension, including environment protection, sustainability, the precautionary principle and to multilateralism as a foundational principle of world politics. The forms of engagement are mainly twofold, namely socialisation and incentive-based. And the response to these EU approaches from China and India are dealt with under the headings of normative emulation, lesson drawing or resistance. This schema drives the empirical and historical investigations, allowing Torney to organise a vast amount of material over a long period in a coherent manner. Along with capacity and consistency, the notion of coherence in EU policy-making provides him with tools to criticise its changing substance and objectives. These concepts are clearly set out and grounded in the international relations literature, allowing the author to use them in the subsequent empirical analysis. His data drawn from secondary, primary and policy documents is supplemented by interviews with policy-makers and experts in Beijing, Brussels, Delhi and London which are well used in the narrative chapters.

Polity-building inspired the EU in the 1990s and 2000s when climate change was an evident way to develop its international role, counter-balanced against the US especially. That encouraged the normative side of the argument, as the issue was defined into European identity as a “normative power” in contrast to the US. But the euro zone crisis coincided with a disappointing EU performance at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009 to reassert material interests, a development reinforced by geopolitical conflicts over Ukraine from 2013. In that perspective the 2015 COP21 summit saw a rebalancing of these drivers into a new amalgam. The EU’s relations with China and India grew in the 2000s but were dogged by a failure to develop commensurate capacity in terms of skilled personnel or sustained commitment. That in turn affected the coherence of policies across other spheres, including on trade, where the Commission’s efforts to make access conditional on climate change policies were outflanked by individual member-states’ pressure to relax such stipulations. Inconsistency of approach therefore becomes a theme of this story about the EU’s external policy-making.

Certain systematic disagreements between the global North and global South have characterised climate negotiations since the United Nations regime was established with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988 and in the early 1990s when the United Nations arrangements were set up. Torney examines these in a chapter entitled “The Normative Gap in European, Chinese and Indian Climate Relations”. It deals with issues of fairness, equity and justice in the global governance of these issues. But these values are framed differently by each actor. The extent to which they converge or diverge Torney labels the normative gap between them.

It is a useful way to analyse contested questions of governance and values, which he groups together in four clusters. Mitigation versus adaptation, concerning whether countries reduce greenhouse gas emissions or adapt to a changing climate. The former suits industrialised countries better and it was characteristic of the first stages of the climate negotiation campaign that they used their power to frame the issue that way. In due course it was refashioned so that China and India both came to insist the two questions are assigned equal priority.

Accounting for emissions raises similar issues, especially those involving historical emissions against current ones, obviously pitching industrialised countries responsible for the greatest part of accumulated greenhouse gases against current maximal outputters which are latecomers to industrialisation. Equity, justice and differentiation in the distribution of responsibilities for binding targets is another central cluster. And a fourth concerns the architecture and instruments brought to bear in the climate regime. Should it emphasise targets and timetables, as the EU has preferred or pledges and reviews, less coercive and preferred by those from the global South, including China and India? State sovereignty comes to the fore in these discussions. A parallel disagreement brings in the US, which prefers voluntary methods and market mechanisms. The history of climate regime talks traces the emergence of intensified disagreements and surprising convergences of views on these issues between the various interests. In particular market and voluntary approaches attracted greater southern support. But major normative gaps remain.

These are explored in two case study chapters dealing with EU relations with China and India. The EU engagement with China on climate change raises many questions that go beyond that sphere and reflect broader changes in world politics. Torney’s treatment of them brings his relational perspective to bear, dealing notably with the definition and framing of multipolarity. As with the euro’s possible reserve currency role, climate change became a touchstone for creating alternative poles of power based on the EU and China.

In recent years this issue has been highlighted by the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, raising expectation that Europe and China would have an interest in counter-balancing that move. The EU engagement with China on climate change has been intense and complex. The chapter tracks those developments skilfully, using the book’s analytical framework to good effect. Creating a strategic partnership at a 2003 conference was a key step, partly in response to the Bush administration’s unilateralism. But such a policy convergence soon came up against a limit imposed by China’s preference for a state sovereignty understanding of multipolarity compared to the EU’s commitment to multilateralism. The Commission’s initiatives were regularly outflanked too by those of major EU member-states, like Germany and France. Efforts to institutionalise the relationship on climate change and other issues nevertheless proceeded well all told. The Commission can never hope to exert exclusive competence in this area and needs to coordinate its efforts with member-states. Often its failure to do so is criticised here in terms of consistency and coherence as well as capacity.

China’s own ecological problems and environmental degradation became more and more important factors in its domestic politics during this more intensive decade of EU-Chinese engagement in the 2000s. Its reliance on coal production to power its industry and homes led to huge levels of urban pollution and a growing environmental awareness among its citizens. That in turn has stimulated efforts to innovate technologically and industrially, an effort in tune with the major shift away from export-led growth to a more domestically charged one in a more balanced economy. The evolution of these policies and the twists and turns of climate diplomacy are tracked in this informative chapter on a centrally important issue in global politics. How the Chinese deal with these questions will affect us all over the next generation. Their response to EU policies ranged through emulation, drawing lessons and resistance. EU leadership, Torney concludes, was limited and on occasion favourable. Overall, though the balance sheet is positive.

That is much less the case with India. As Torney argues, “the story of EU-India engagement on climate change has been one of limited capacity on the EU side and significant resistance on the India side”. Mutual neglect is a feature of their relationship, compounded by a Eurocentrism on the EU side resented by the Indians. Their international engagement gives priority to the US, China and Russia rather than Europe. And Indians relate much more solidly to individual EU member-states like the UK and Germany than to the Brussels-based institutions. They are also influenced considerably by British Euroscepticism, despite efforts by the British in 2005 to institutionalise them during their EU presidency. But relations with the EU are shallower in that respect than with China, due to a lack of expertise as well, which took from efforts to socialise their officialdom. And India’s resistance to EU policies on climate change is based on a more pronounced conviction than China’s that the industrialised counties are responsible for climate change and consequent action to reduce it. That frame reduced their own responsibility to act.

This is a well-organised book, theoretically and in its detailed empirical research. It repays close study as a way into the complex world of global climate change politics. The field is becoming more and more pressing in reality, even if public and political attention lags so much behind the action required. The relational approach taken links in well with wider global political change; as a touchstone the US’s varying policy repertoire during these twenty-five years contrasted with that of the EU. More could usefully have been made of the competitive aspect of this US relationship with the EU in the book, using the multipolar lens on world politics. But at crucial points the EU’s limitations as an international actor limits its capacity to play such a geopolitical role.

The central lesson drawn concerning EU relations with China and India is that there was a mismatch between the EU’s declaration of climate leadership and the resources it devotes to exercising that with both huge states. The outlook after the COP21 summit is certainly better than after Copenhagen in 2009. Torney has valuable advice to offer EU policy-makers on credibility, orchestration of policy between Brussels and the major member states and going beyond Eurocentrism. Too much of EU policy is crafted on the assumption that its model of top-down multilateral regimes based on binding targets finds acceptance elsewhere, in what has been described as an “our size fits all” approach. That is not so. There are many signs that this lesson is being learned in this and other respects by the EU’s foreign policy apparatus, making for a more reciprocal attitude to other regions and emergent powers. All of them face the problem of keeping climate change issues as a prominent part of their agenda. In that respect the recent Conclusions of the EU foreign ministers’ council on COP21 are balanced and committed, if hardly electrifying (http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2016/02/15-fac-climate-diplomacy/).


Dr Paul Gillespie is a columnist on international affairs for The Irish Times and a senior research fellow adjunct in the School of Politics and International Relations at UCD. Among his recent publications is a chapter on 'News Media as Actors in European Foreign Policymaking' in The Sage Handbook of European Foreign Policy, edited by Knud Erik Jorgensen, Asne Kalland Aarstad, Edith Drieskens, Katie Laatikainen and Ben Tonra, London: Sage, 2015; and a chapter on 'Crises as drivers in integration in Europe and Asia: crisis as threat' in Louis Brennan and Philomena Murray eds., Drivers of Integration and Regionalism in Europe and Asia, London and New York: Routledge, 2015.