Europeans and Americans desperately want to leave the Paris climate summit with a deal that erases six years of bad memories.
Back in 2009, the European Union left the flawed Copenhagen summit humiliated while the U.S. rammed through a deal that fell far short of expectations. Top negotiators in Washington and Brussels have spent the years since then trying to understand what went wrong and how to avoid a repeat.
The result is that the two sides head into the COP21 meeting Monday more aware of each other’s priorities and red lines, and deeply invested in reaching an agreement. U.S. President Barack Obama wants to burnish his climate legacy before he leaves office, while the Europeans want an ambitious worldwide deal that doesn’t leave the Continent’s businesses saddled with uncompetitive environmental rules.
There’s just one big problem: They remain sharply at odds over some fundamental issues.
“The kind of agreement the EU wants is more expensive than the one the U.S. wants,” Sarah Blau, the climate attaché from Luxembourg, which holds the European Union’s rotating six-month presidency, said at a conference in Brussels this month.
The legal nature of the so-called climate action targets is perhaps the biggest tension point.
For U.S. officials, legally binding emissions targets, among other steps, are a nonstarter. They would compel Obama to secure the Senate’s approval for the climate deal, and that’s something the Republican-controlled chamber has already vowed to kill.
Instead, the United States has long advocated an approach first outlined by New Zealand, which would split the agreement in two. Countries would be legally bound to follow reporting and transparency procedures on their emissions so that everyone would see what they were doing. However, the actual emissions targets — many of which have already been promised ahead of the COP21 — would not have the force of international law behind them, and that would negate the need to get Senate approval.
That means if a country isn’t reaching its promised reduction targets, there would be no penalty, although the rest of the world would see that it wasn’t hitting its mark.
The EU insists that both the enforcement mechanism and the targets themselves be legally binding. However the agreement still wouldn’t punish those who fall short, making it a dispute about semantics.
“That’s just two ships in the night passing with different meanings,” said Nigel Purvis, a former U.S. diplomat who now leads the consulting firm Climate Advisers.
But those words are enormously important to Brussels, which is fighting hard for the COP21 to have the rest of the world make promises as ambitious as its own.
The bloc’s 2030 targets — a 40 percent cut in emissions, an increase in the share of renewables to 27 percent and a 27 percent improvement in energy efficiency — are already locked in law. The biggest concern, especially among the poorest, most fossil fuel-dependent EU members, is that the EU will be stuck with implementing the sometimes costly changes needed to meet those targets, while rivals take a slower and more investor-friendly approach. Poland in particular is leading the charge against the ambitious targets, warning that its smokestack industries and coal-fired power plants could be hurt.
“We need success in Paris, of course for the planet and for mankind, but also in order to re-establish a level playing field on the global industrial market,” Maroš Šefčovič, the Commission vice president, told POLITICO in September.
The appeal of a binding international treaty, for the EU as well as the private sector and many developing countries, is that it would provide long-term certainty.
“One of the dangers is if in the 2016 elections in the U.S. you end up with a climate-skeptic being elected, it could easily undo the progress made in Paris this year,” said Shane Tomlinson, a senior research fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House. “So I think Europe is looking for legal forms that mean that the regime as a whole can survive individual changes within countries over time.”
Washington, however, has long been averse to international climate treaties. The Clinton administration did sign the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, but didn’t submit it to the Senate for ratification, and the subsequent Bush administration rejected the protocol. Secretary of State John Kerry made clear earlier this month that the U.S.’s position remains unchanged, telling the Financial Times that the COP21 deal is “definitively not going to be a treaty” and that there are “not going to be legally binding reductions.”
Kerry’s categorical statements, while negotiations were still underway, took European officials aback. To them, the comments reflected American arrogance, and came as a nervous reaction to a joint declaration France and China made a week earlier. The statement between French President François Hollande and Chinese President Xi Jinping calls for “an ambitious and legally binding” deal that takes into account “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” It also backs a measure for countries to take stock of their progress every five years, saying it would result in “regularly enhancing” climate action.
Aside from the deal’s legal form, there are issues on which the U.S. and EU do largely agree, but to varying degrees.
Both want to blur the lines between developed and developing countries, which have traditionally been defined according to a U.N. list created in 1992. Rich countries want developing ones, which have grown richer since 1992, to bear more of the burden of climate policies.
They also agree that the COP21 agreement should set up a five-year review system starting in 2020, which would allow governments to gradually raise their emissions reduction targets.
Most experts and diplomats tracking the U.S.-EU climate talks agree that it’s a much stronger, more collaborative relationship now than it was in 2009. Obama has made particularly big climate overtures in recent months, introducing the Clean Power Plan aimed at phasing out coal, and vetoing the Keystone XL oil pipeline, designed to ship crude extracted from Canada’s oil sands down to the U.S.
Behind the scenes, the U.S. and EU will have to come up with a compromise that pleases Europe by making parts of the agreement binding and creates a system for monitoring and verifying emissions reductions, while eschewing language that would require Obama to bring the deal before Congress.
“I think they’ll work it out,” said Daniel Bodansky, an Arizona State University law professor who served as a State Department climate coordinator at the end of the Clinton administration. “It doesn’t seem like that would be one of the issues that causes the Paris conference to flounder. I think they’ll find some formulation that will bridge the gap.”
But the EU’s frustrations with America over its apparent lack of climate ambition date back to long before the Copenhagen disappointment.
During Bill Clinton’s tenure in the 1990s, U.S. officials believed Europe’s push for a top-down deal that mandated emissions cuts was unrealistic. The tension led to a string of late-night meetings that one former U.S. diplomat described as “the single most exhausting negotiation” of his career. George W. Bush’s decision to dump the Kyoto Protocol only exacerbated the distrust.
Under Obama, the U.S. has become much more sympathetic to climate arguments and wants Europe to recognize that. “Many Europeans come to these discussions with the expectation that the United States is a laggard,” said David Sandalow, who served as a top energy and climate change official during the Clinton and Obama administrations. “Now, U.S. emissions are at their lowest point in 20 years.”
Indeed, Europeans do see a change in the U.S. approach over the last six years.
Climate was a prominent issue in a leaders summit between the EU and U.S. in March 2014. Their joint statement stressed the need to tackle climate change to encourage sustainable economic growth and ensure global security, and pushed for governments to adopt a “protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force” at the COP21. They also pledged to start talks with the World Trade Organization about liberalizing trade on environmental goods, as a way of addressing climate change.
“Under Obama their collaboration has been huge, much more than there was before,” said Annika Hedberg, a senior analyst at the European Policy Centre. “You could push for more EU-U.S. collaboration, but the relationship has improved tremendously.”
But the memory of the disappointing Copenhagen summit is still painful.
The U.S. and China rammed through an unambitious agreement that left much of the world dissatisfied, and the EU was humiliated by being locked out of those last-minute talks.
“We acknowledge the difficulties in Copenhagen and we will try to solve it in the future,” Miguel Arias Cañete, the EU’s climate action and energy commissioner, told reporters on Wednesday. “For that the European Union has built lots of different alliances, but we also have a very good dialogue with China for sure and with the United States for sure. We agree to disagree in some elements, but we agree to agree in most elements.”
Sara Stefanini reported from Brussels and Andrew Restuccia from Washington.
Kalina Oroschakoff also contributed reporting to this article.