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date: 27 February 2024

Climate Policy in European Union Politicsfree

Climate Policy in European Union Politicsfree

  • Tom DelreuxTom DelreuxDepartment of Political Science, Université Catholique de Louvain
  •  and Frauke OhlerFrauke OhlerDepartment of Political Science, Université Catholique de Louvain


The fight against climate change has become a major area of action for the European Union (EU), both at the European and the international level. EU climate policy has gained importance since the 1990s and is today the most politicized issue on the EU’s environmental agenda. The EU is often considered a frontrunner—even a leader—in the adoption of climate policies internally and the promotion of such policies externally. Internally, the EU has developed the world’s most advanced and comprehensive regulatory frameworks, encompassing both EU-wide policies and targets to be achieved by the member states. The actual EU policy instruments fall into two categories: whereas emissions in certain industrial sectors are reduced through a carbon market and a “cap-and-trade” system (the Emissions Trading Scheme), emissions from non-ETS sectors are addressed through domestic policies by member states. These measures have led to a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU, but they will not suffice to achieve the EU’s long-term goals, which requires a major overhaul of some of the basic premises of the EU’s policies in sectors such as energy production and consumption, transport, agriculture, and industry. Externally, the EU has been advocating ambitious and legally binding international climate agreements. Desiring to “lead by example”, the EU has been an influential global climate player at important international climate conferences such as those held in Kyoto (1997), Marrakesh (2001), and Paris (2015), but its diplomacy failed at the Copenhagen conference (2009).


  • Governance/Political Change
  • Policy, Administration, and Bureaucracy
  • World Politics


Climate change is one of the most important challenges the world is facing today. The rapid accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as a result of human activities in sectors such as energy production and consumption, transport, industry, or agriculture has severe consequences, for example, for food production or biodiversity (European Environment Agency, 2015). In the most vulnerable places in the world, climate change also reduces access to natural resources and increases the risk of violent conflicts and major migration flows (Scheffran, Brzoska, Brauch, Link, & Schilling, 2012). The fight against climate change has become a major area of action for the European Union (EU), both at the European and the international level. Since the 1990s, EU climate policy has quickly grown into a mature policy domain, becoming the most politicized and dominant issue on the EU’s environmental agenda.

Despite regular controversies among member states, societal groups, and industries, the EU has managed to be a leader in the adoption of climate policies internally and in the promotion of such policies externally (Böhringer, 2014; Dupont, Oberthür, & Biedenkopf, 2018; Schreurs & Tiberghien, 2007). The main public narrative by the European institutions to justify an ambitious climate policy is that it is leading to a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions without undermining economic growth in Europe (Delbeke & Vis, 2015a). Internally, the EU has developed the world’s most advanced and comprehensive regulatory frameworks, encompassing both EU-wide policies and targets to be achieved by the member states. Externally, since the early 1990s, the EU has been advocating ambitious and legally binding international agreements. Developments in climate policymaking at the European and international level are strongly interlinked: internal policies are often driven by international dynamics, and the EU’s role in global climate negotiations cannot be fully understood without taking into account internal policies and political dynamics. In that sense, the EU’s internal and external climate policies have indeed “evolved in tandem and have fed back on each other” (Oberthür & Pallemaerts, 2010a, p. 27). This reflects the inherent multi-level nature of today’s climate politics.

This contribution, which aims to shed light on the EU’s climate policy is structured as follows. The section “Origins and Development of EU Climate Policy” presents an overview of the origins and development of EU climate policy, showing its evolution toward a mature policy field with the highest political priority on the EU’s environmental agenda. The following two sections then present the current policy framework. To achieve its own climate targets (“Short‑, Medium-, and Long-Term Targets”), the EU has established different policy instruments (“Main Policy Instruments”) consisting of a market-based Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and various regulatory policies covering emissions in sectors that are not covered by the ETS’s carbon market. The section “Achievements and Challenges” discusses the achievements of these policies in terms of emission reductions and identifies the main challenges the EU is facing to achieve its long-term climate goals. The section “External Dimension of EU Climate Policy: The EU and Global Climate Governance” shifts the attention to the international level and discusses the external climate policy of the EU and the role of the EU in global climate governance. The “Conclusion” brings together the findings presented in the previous sections.

Origins and Development of EU Climate Policy

At the end of the 1970s, climate change appeared on the EU’s agenda as a subdomain of its research policy. Yet the first steps toward policy initiatives in this field were only taken a decade later, after a resolution by the European Parliament (1986), a communication by the European Commission (1988), and European Council conclusions (1990) calling to stabilize emissions at 1990 levels by 2000, but without specifying how that target should be reached (Anderson, 2009). In the 1990s, a number of regulatory instruments were adopted at the EU level (e.g., on technical standards for the energy efficiency of household appliances), and voluntary agreements were concluded with car manufacturers. The Commission also proposed to introduce a carbon tax, but this attempt failed because of strong opposition by a number of member states and the unanimity requirement on the adoption of tax policies in the EU (Wettestad, 2001). At the international level, the EU played a leading role in the negotiations of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, demanding for international targets to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Groenleer & van Schaik, 2007; see also the section “External Dimension of EU Climate Policy”). But this international ambition was not backed up with equally ambitious internal climate policies, as the main significance of these first policy initiatives was that they put climate change on the European agenda (Oberthür & Pallemaerts, 2010a).

These dynamics profoundly changed in the early 2000s. With the nonratification by the United States of the Kyoto Protocol, the EU saw itself in need to save it (Jordan, Huitema, van Asselt, Rayner, & Berkhout, 2012). In the context of the EU having to achieve its Kyoto commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 8% by 2012 (Anderson, 2009), various pieces of EU-wide climate policies were developed, ultimately leading to a comprehensive regulatory framework. Progress on internal climate policies was thus primarily inspired by the result of international dynamics that the EU had pushed for. Less than a year after the Kyoto conference, the EU internally adopted the so-called Burden Sharing Agreement (Council of Ministers, 1998), stipulating which member states should make what sorts of efforts to implement the EU’s joint emission reduction target of Kyoto. Apart from illustrating the close link between international dynamics and internal policy developments, the 1998 Burden Sharing Agreement also demonstrates that national policies adopted by member states in the framework of coordinated measures at the EU level are an essential component of the EU’s overall climate policy (Oberthür & Roche Kelly, 2008; see also “Non-ETS” on non-ETS policy instruments).

Another component of that comprehensive climate policy framework established in the 2000s consists of regulatory policy instruments on a wide range of climate-related issues, such as energy performance of buildings, biofuels or CO2 emissions from cars. Next to providing an umbrella for domestic action and adopting regulatory instruments, the EU also established a market-based policy instrument, which quickly became the EU’s most important climate policy tool, the EU ETS. This evolution reflected a broader trend in the field of EU environmental policy where the EU complemented its exclusive focus on regulatory policies and measures with a broader range of alternative policy instruments, including economic or market-based instruments (Jordan, Benson, Wurzel, & Zito, 2013). The first ETS Directive (2003/87) was adopted in 2003 (European Parliament and Council, 2003), the market to trade carbon allowances became operational in 2005 and it has been reformed several times since then (see “ETS”).

In the second half of the 2000s, the development of internal climate policies continued with the perspective of the so-called post-2012 period. The first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol was to come to an end in 2012, and the EU was not only pushing for a successor agreement at the international level (a strategy that failed at the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference; see “External Dimension of EU Climate Policy: The EU and Global Climate Governance”) but was also preparing its own internal policy framework for the post-Kyoto era. In that context, the EU adopted two sets of strategic objectives, with climate and energy targets to be achieved by 2020 and 2050 (see “Short-, Medium-, and Long-Term Targets”). Yet, toward the end of the 2000s and the first years of the following decade, EU climate policy faced multiple crisis moments: the EU’s credibility as global climate leader was badly damaged after the Copenhagen conference; its climate policy flagship—the ETS—suffered from major shortcomings and dysfunctions; and the political momentum to restore these internal and external flaws was lacking as the financial-economic crisis dominated the political agenda. This ultimately led to a decline in the EU’s internal ambitions and external leadership in that period (Burns & Tobin, 2018).

The political momentum for EU climate policy changed again in the mid-2010s. The 2015 Paris Agreement and the EU’s successful role in that negotiation process not only generated a boost for the EU’s external leadership ambitions but also created a new dynamic in the internal climate policy developments as the EU strengthened its climate legislation and adopted policies in the framework of the Energy Union (European Commission, 2015) in order to comply with the 2030 commitments it made in Paris.

In a period of two decades, the EU has thus successfully adopted an encompassing set of policies to fight climate change despite the frequent controversies and difficulties that characterize its policymaking processes. Member states in the Council are recurrently divided between a group of ambitious member states advocating strong climate policies and a coalition of member states being more unwilling and attempting to weaken ambitions in the climate change domain (Burns & Tobin, 2018; Skovgaard, 2014). The former, following the so-called ecological modernization paradigm, consider strong climate policies as beneficial to economic growth. The core of that coalition is called the Green Growth Group, which includes Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Sweden, and Slovenia. The latter group is composed of mostly central and eastern European member states with domestic energy systems that strongly rely on coal. Poland plays a leading role in that coalition, mainly arguing that ambitious climate policies are detrimental to economic growth (Jankowska, 2012). This division between EU member states has become particularly visible from 2008 onward in the context of the financial-economic crisis (Skovgaard, 2014). Not only is the Council divided along these lines but also the Commission, where the climate positions of, for instance, the Directorate-General for Climate Action and Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs frequently diverge (Bürgin, 2015; Dreger, 2014). Yet these internal divisions have not prevented the EU from adopting both overarching targets in the short, medium, and long-term, as well as several specific climate policy instruments to achieve these targets.

Short-, Medium-, and Long-Term Targets

Since the mid-2000s, the EU has attempted to steer its climate policies by setting its own climate and energy targets and objectives to be achieved in the short (2020), medium (2030) and long term (2050). In 2007, at a moment when the EU climate policy development was well underway and the EU undertook leadership efforts for the upcoming Copenhagen conference, the EU adopted climate and energy targets for 2020. In 2014, the EU determined its targets for 2030. Once more, this occurred in the context of the EU preparing for an international conference—here the 2015 Paris Conference—again illustrating the interaction between the EU’s internal and external climate policies. These medium-term targets for 2030 were adopted as a stepping stone for the EU’s objective to move to a low-carbon economy by 2050, a decision that was taken in 2011. These three sets of targets have in common that they have been initiated and developed by the European Commission and received the support of the highest policy authority, the heads of state and government in the European Council. Moreover, the adoption of the short- and medium-term targets have initiated a process of developing legislation in order to implement the targets in concrete policy instruments.

Short Term: 2020 Climate and Energy Package

In March 2007, the European Council agreed to three goals known as the 20‑20‑20 targets (European Council, 2007). They entail a total reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 20% (from 1990 levels), a 20% share of renewable energy in the EU’s energy consumption, and a 20% improvement in energy efficiency, all to be reached by 2020. These are internal targets, with nonetheless a significant external importance. As the EU wanted to show leadership in the run-up to the Copenhagen climate change conference, it is no coincidence that the 20‑20‑20 goals were designed to be easily communicated to a wide international audience. International leadership ambitions also explain the EU’s promise to move to a 30% reduction target if a future global agreement were to include similar targets for other industrialized countries.

Through an unusually quick legislative process, a package of several pieces of legislation was adopted in 2008 in order to implement the 20‑20‑20 targets (Delbeke & Vis, 2015a; Delreux & Happaerts, 2016). Two legislative acts of the package were adopted to implement the 20% emission reduction target. On the one hand, the ETS was reformed in order to incentivize the reduction of emissions from heavy industries and the power production sector (see section on the ETS). On the other hand, the effort to reduce emissions from so-called non-ETS sectors (e.g., transport, agriculture, buildings) was shared between the member states in the so-called Effort Sharing Decision, with differentiated targets for each member state. The legislative package also contained legislation on renewable energy and was subsequently extended with legislation on fuel quality, emissions from passenger cars, and energy efficiency.

Medium Term: 2030 Climate and Energy Framework

With the 2020 targets in reach, a new set of targets was agreed upon in 2014. The so-called climate and energy framework updates the 2020 targets, but now to be achieved by 2030 (European Council, 2014). By that year, greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced by at least 40%; the share of renewable energy in energy consumption should be raised to at least 27%; and energy efficiency should increase by at least 27%. In 2018, the renewables target was enshrined in EU legislation and increased to 32%, and the energy efficiency target to 32,5%. Next to the tripartite structure of the targets, the 2030 climate and energy framework also mirrored the 2020 climate and energy package in the sense that the targets are internally applicable, but at the same time also externally relevant. They were adopted in the run-up to a major international climate conference, COP 21 in Paris, where the EU aimed to play a leading role and where the internal targets served to uphold the EU’s leadership ambitions. Moreover, the targets form the basis of the EU’s international commitment under the Paris Agreement—the EU’s nationally determined contribution (NDC).

Internal climate policy developments after 2015 are driven by the implementation of the 2030 framework—and the realization of the EU’s Paris commitments. The Commission issued proposals to reform the ETS and to provide a framework for emission reductions in non-ETS sectors and for various energy-related policies in the framework of the Energy Union (notably on energy efficiency, renewables, and governance) (Dupont, Oberthür, & Biedenkopf, 2018). The EU’s main climate policy instruments, discussed in the following section, have recently been updated and revised in order to align them with the medium-term targets of 2030. This not only illustrates their relevance to understand the concrete legislative policies, but it also shows that these separate pieces of legislation are part of a comprehensive framework and aim to achieve the EU’s medium-term objectives.

Long Term: 2050 Roadmap

In 2009, two years after the establishment of the 2020 targets, the European Council decided that the EU should aim for an 80–95% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels) (European Council, 2009). This decision by the heads of state and government followed the scientific recommendation by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that such emission reductions are required in order to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial levels. Based upon this long-term target of the European Council, the Commission issued in 2011 its “Roadmap for Moving to a Competitive Low Carbon Economy in 2050” (European Commission, 2011) in order to demonstrate the policy implications of that ambition.

Using a backcasting methodology, the Roadmap calculates how emissions should be reduced in order to arrive at a reduction of 80% in 2050. It provides differentiated scenarios for different sectors, taking into account their specificities, obstacles, and opportunities. Whereas, for instance, the power sector should take immediate action and become completely decarbonized by 2050, the transport sector is granted an initial grace period but should halve its emissions by 2050. The situation is different for the industry sector, where a rather linear reduction path is foreseen. In 2018, the Commission issued a Communication “A Clean Planet for All,” in which it calls to achieve climate neutrality, which means reaching net-zero emissions, by 2050 (European Commission, 2018).

The 2050 Roadmap and its targets are political objectives, and they are not legally binding, but the mere fact that the EU pursues these long-term objectives and policy vision is not insignificant (Delreux & Happaerts, 2016). The EU pioneered in visualizing the consequences of long-term climate action and in showing that the scientific recommendations cannot be reached with current policies and technologies. The Roadmap also makes clear that the EU’s long-term targets will not be achieved merely with environmental policy instruments, but that climate considerations should be fully integrated into other policy areas, notably energy, transport, and agriculture (i.e., so-called climate policy integration or climate proofing), which is insufficiently the case in the early 21st century (Adelle & Russel, 2013; Dupont & Oberthür, 2012).

Main Policy Instruments

The main EU climate policy instruments can be grouped in two categories, each covering approximately half of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions: the ETS and the non-ETS track. In the ETS track, the EU intends to reduce emissions from power producers, heavy industries, and intra-European aviation through a carbon market system called the ETS. In the non-ETS track, emissions from other sectors are to be reduced through national policies, with member states having a national emission reduction target (i.e., “effort sharing”) as well as harmonized EU product standards determined in EU legislation.


The ETS is a policy instrument that aims to incentivize big industrial players to reduce their emissions by “putting a price on carbon” through the use of market-based dynamics (Meadows, Slingenberg, & Zapfel, 2015). Hence, following the “polluter pays principle,” the rationale of the ETS is that industries pay for their carbon emissions. Although such a market mechanism was not the EU’s preferred approach to deal with climate change in the 1990s, the EU ultimately made a U-turn and accepted the idea of economic instruments in the negotiations of the Kyoto Protocol (at the time, essentially to get the United States on board) (Skjærseth & Wettestad, 2008). After its creation in the 2000s, the ETS quickly became the world’s largest carbon market and the cornerstone of the EU’s climate policy. Since then, the ETS has seen a “bumpy ride” (Wettestad & Jevnaker, 2018, p. 49). The policy’s shortcoming has given rise to several reforms, characterized by strong controversies among policymakers and stakeholders. The debates on the reforms of the ETS have been characterized by various doubts on the design of the market—for instance on the exceptions that allow big polluters to continue their emissions without having to pay for them. From various angles, including civil society and Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), the ETS has been criticized for a lack of effectiveness as a tool to reduce greenhouse gases. The reforms have not necessarily solved these criticisms. The earliest reforms of the ETS did not address the fundamental problems, which even reinforced the criticism on the system that is presented by the EU as its flagship climate policy instrument.

The basis of the ETS is the principle that industries have to hold an allowance for each unit of carbon they emit. The ETS then principally establishes a so-called cap-and-trade system. First, the cap consists of a quantitative limit on the total covered emissions. In other words, the cap determines the volume of greenhouse gases that sectors covered by the ETS are allowed to emit. Importantly, that cap shrinks over time by a so-called linear reduction factor, which is currently 1.74% per year and which will increase to 2.2% from 2021 onward. Second, a market is set up where companies, who receive or buy allowances, can trade allowances with each other in case they emit more or less than their allowances permit. Efficient emitters are thus rewarded as they can sell their surpluses on the market, whereas inefficient emitters are financially penalized as they need to buy additional allowances. The main idea behind this market-based instrument is thus to incentivize companies to reduce their emissions in a context of a decreasing number of available allowances.

Approximately 11,000 industrial plants and more than 500 airlines operate under the ETS: large companies in the sectors of power and heat production and energy-intensive industrial sectors (such as steel, aluminum, cement) as well as intra-European commercial aviation. The ETS covers the entire European Economic Area, that is, the EU member states plus Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein. Moreover, the ETS is linked to the Swiss carbon market, so that allowances can be traded between the two schemes.

The ETS is currently in its third phase (or “trading period”)—and a fourth phase will commence in 2021. During the first “pilot” (or “trial”) (2005–2007) and the second phase (2008–2012), the ETS was designed as a largely decentralized system with a significant role for national authorities (Wettestad, 2014). There was no EU-wide cap; allowances were allocated at the national level; and most of them were allocated for free. This led to numerous problems: not only was the system implemented differently in various national contexts, but the biggest challenge was the oversupply of allowances on the market, as a result of which the availability of allowances exceeded the demands (Anderson, 2009; Wettestad, 2014). This ultimately resulted in a severe decline of the price of an allowance, which is why the ETS did not create the intended incentive for companies to invest in climate-friendly measures.

It was in that context that, as part of the implementation of the 20‑20‑20 targets, significant reforms of the ETS were adopted for its third stage (2013–2020) (Wettestad, 2014). A single EU-wide cap was introduced; the allocation of allowances became a European instead of national responsibility; auctioning became the main allocation principle; and additional sectors were included in the ETS (e.g., intra-European aviation, aluminum, petrochemicals). About half of the allowances are currently auctioned at the EU level, primarily to power-producing companies. The revenues generated by the auctioning are distributed between member states on the basis of their share of emissions, yet with solidarity mechanisms in favor of lower-income member states. At least half of the revenues should be used for climate-related measures. The other half of the allowances are given out for free, particularly to energy-intensive and trade-exposed heavy industries. The rationale is that these industries face a so-called carbon leakage risk, meaning that the ETS risks to undermine their international competitiveness and to cause relocation of their industrial activities outside the EU, where emitting does not come at the same price.

Yet at the start of the third phase, the “ETS found itself in severe crisis” (Wettestad & Jevnaker, 2016, p. 1). The problem triggered by the surplus of allowances was even intensified by the financial-economic crisis. As production in energy-intensive sectors was declining, fewer allowances were needed, so more were put on the market, and the surplus accumulated rapidly. An allowance for a ton of emissions costed less than 10 euros, which was well below the price of 30–50 euros that is considered necessary for the ETS to be effective (Lechtenböhmer & Samadi, 2015). From 2012 onward, the ETS therefore underwent another, crisis-driven reform process, consisting of several pieces of legislation aimed to improve its effectiveness (Wettestad & Jevnaker, 2016). The legislation on backloading postponed the auctioning of some allowances to 2019–2020, and the Decision on the Market Stability Reserve (MSR) established a system to withdraw a certain number of allowances from the market, adding them to the reserve if the surplus exceeds a certain threshold.

In 2018, a major overall reform of the ETS was adopted in order to prepare the scheme for its fourth phase starting in 2021 (European Parliament & Council, 2018a). From then onward, the cap will annually shrink by 2.2%, which should allow the EU to achieve its medium-term reduction target by 2030—and thus also its commitment under the Paris Agreement. The MSR will be temporarily doubled in an attempt to remove yet more surpluses from the market. Moreover, several funding mechanisms should support the modernization of energy systems in (mainly central and eastern European) lower-income member states (Modernization Fund) and innovation on climate-friendly technologies (Innovation Fund). The establishment and consolidation of these funding mechanisms were a necessary element of the political compromise on the ETS reform to keep a number of central and eastern European member states on board. Although this ETS reform will only enter into force in 2021, the market’s reaction to the adoption of the legislation in 2018 suggests that the reforms may indeed address the carbon price issue. After the political deal was reached, the carbon price in the EU more than doubled in a few months’ time. First assessments on the effects of the reform concluded that this evolution is likely to continue and that the reform “significantly strengthens the functioning of the EU ETS, even if some of the improvements will take time to materialize” (Elkerbout, 2017).


Approximately half of the greenhouse gas emissions in the EU come from sectors that are not covered by the ETS, such as transport, agriculture, buildings, waste, and small industry installations. These so-called non-ETS emissions are not addressed in an EU-wide manner, but through domestic policies by the member states, for instance, by promoting public transport, supporting energy efficiency in buildings, or making farming practices more climate friendly (Böhringer, 2014). Yet the EU has established an overall emission reduction target for the non-ETS sectors: in order to achieve the 2030 target of 40% emission reductions by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, the non-ETS sectors have to reduce their emissions by 30% compared to 2005 levels. How that target is then distributed among the member states is determined in the so-called effort sharing legislation, which attributes different reduction targets to each member state, depending on their GDP per capita. Richer countries have thus more ambitious targets than poorer ones.

As mentioned in the section on the 2020 targets, the EU had adopted an Effort Sharing Decision in 2009 with differentiated national targets to be achieved by 2020, determined on the basis of member states’ GDP per capita (European Parliament & Council, 2009). Whereas some member states had to reduce emissions in these sectors by 20% (e.g., Denmark, Ireland, and Luxembourg), others were still allowed to increase their emissions (e.g., Bulgaria by 20%) compared to 2005 levels. In 2018, an updated Effort Sharing Regulation was adopted with a view to distributing the EU’s 2030 target among the member states (European Parliament & Council, 2018b). The latter have differentiated targets, now ranging between 0% and 40% reduction. At the same time, legislation was adopted that sets the rules for the incorporation of emissions and removals generated by the land use, land-use change, and forestry (LULUCF) sectors into the achievement of national targets.

These national policies on non-ETS emissions are also supported by European legislation that aims to harmonize rules and particularly product standards. The EU has, for instance, adopted regulatory standards on emissions for new fleets of different categories of road transport vehicles (such as cars and vans) or the quality of fuels used in road transportation. Likewise, the EU regulates the use of fluorinated gases (i.e., powerful greenhouse gases used in various industrial applications) and the eco-design requirements for specific energy-related products (e.g., air conditioners, lighting products, vacuum cleaners). Such EU-level regulatory frameworks harmonizing product standards are traditionally frequently used policy instruments in many environmental subdomains, as they create the necessary level playing field for a well-functioning internal market (Delreux & Happaerts, 2016).

Achievements and Challenges

The mere fact that the EU now has one of the world’s most comprehensive and ambitious sets of climate policies can be considered as an essential achievement. Yet it immediately triggers the question whether these policies are delivering in terms of achieving the targets they intend to realize. In order to address that question, we assess the achievements of the EU’s past climate target (2012) and its future short- (2020), medium- (2030) and long-term (2050) targets.

First, under the Kyoto Protocol, the EU had committed to a joint emission reduction target of 8% compared to 1990 levels by 2012 (Böhringer, 2014). It has overachieved this target by a wide margin: the 15 member states of 1997 (to which the Kyoto target applied) collectively reduced their emissions by approximately 12%, whereas the average emission reduction of the 27 member states of 2012 was around 18%. Hence, from both perspectives, the EU fully complied with its Kyoto targets.

Second, sound predictions can already be made about the achievement of the EU’s 20‑20‑20 targets for 2020. Overall, the EU as a whole is well on track to reach these targets. However, not all member states are performing equally well: some will realize their target rather easily, whereas others are not on track. Yet the overachievement of the former compensates for the underachievement of the latter, as a result of which the EU as a bloc will be successful in fulfilling its self-imposed 2020 ambitions for all three areas (emission reduction, renewables, energy efficiency).

It should be noted, however, that the EU’s achievements regarding the 2020 and 2030 targets cannot be entirely traced to the effectiveness of EU climate policies. The fall of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU is also the result of the breakdown of carbon-intensive industries in central and eastern Europe, the economic recession of the end of the 2000s, and national political developments, such as German reunification and the transition from coal to gas in a number of member states (Oberthür & Pallemaerts, 2010a; Oberthür & Roche Kelly, 2008). In that sense, it has been argued that only half of the emission reductions in the EU are caused by climate policies as such (Böhringer, 2014).

Third, projections and trends tracked by the European Environment Agency (EEA) clearly show that the existing policy framework is insufficient and that current climate efforts need to be stepped up to reach the more ambitious medium-term target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 (European Environment Agency, 2017). The situation is even more worrying regarding the long-term target for 2050, as the EU is currently not on a path leading to the 80–95% reduction—let alone net-zero emissions—by the middle of the century. In order to meet that objective, climate efforts will have to be considerably intensified. Yet getting on track toward this long-term solution proves to be extremely challenging as it requires fundamental changes of current production and consumption patterns, and therefore of investment choices, consumer practices, and social norms (Delreux & Happaerts, 2016). The EEA concludes—and warns—that this can only take place “in the context of a major transformation of the EU’s socio-technical systems such as the energy, food and mobility systems. As the effects of policies and measures often take time to materialise, action aimed at achieving the long-term targets cannot be delayed” (European Environment Agency, 2017, p. 13).

External Dimension of EU Climate Policy: The EU and Global Climate Governance

The EU has been one of the major actors in international climate governance, mostly pushing for progress in global climate negotiations and for ambition in their outcomes. Since the start of UN-wide negotiations on climate agreements, the EU strived to show its leadership, pushing for global, legally binding international agreements aiming to combat climate change. This external ambition does not stand apart from internal discussion and negotiations. Breakthroughs in international climate diplomacy have often triggered the adoption of internal objectives and more ambitious climate policies inside the EU. Yet when global negotiations did not make progress or failed, appetite in the EU to strengthen its climate policy framework also diminished too.

The extent to which the EU has succeeded to play that leadership role varied considerably in the three decades of global climate governance since the early 1990s (for overviews, see Afionis, 2017; Bäckstrand & Elgström, 2013; Oberthür, 2011; Schunz, 2014). In the run-up to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the EU for the first time negotiated as a single bloc. The Kyoto negotiations are considered a “high point for EU global leadership” (Bäckstrand & Elgström, 2013, p. 1376). The EU succeeded in achieving an international climate treaty with binding international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for industrialized countries. Yet it was especially in the years after the signing of the Kyoto Protocol that the EU’s leadership flourished. Following the United States’ withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol ratification process in 2001, and in order to save the Kyoto Protocol, the EU reached a deal with Russia in which it supported the Russian World Trade Organization (WTO) membership bid in exchange for Russia’s ratification of the Protocol (Bretherton & Vogler, 2006). In addition, the EU strongly pushed for the Marrakesh Agreements of 2001 on the technical implementation of Kyoto.

In the mid-2000s, after the Kyoto Protocol entered into force, and the end of its first commitment period in 2012 became the new international time horizon, the EU focused its international climate diplomacy on the post-2012 regime. A new post-2012 climate agreement was supposed to be adopted in Copenhagen in 2009. However, the climate conference failed—and with it the EU’s leadership aspirations (Groen, Niemann, & Oberthür, 2012). The outcome of Copenhagen did not reflect at all the EU’s preference for a legally binding successor to the Kyoto Protocol, with binding mitigation actions by all parties. Moreover, the EU was also excluded from the endgame of the negotiations, which were dominated by the emerging economies and the United States. Copenhagen clearly proved to be a backlash for the EU’s global climate leadership. Reasons were diverse: “The Union came to Copenhagen with a strong normative agenda, unrealistic expectations, a miscalculation of the geopolitical context . . . It failed to forge any bridge-building coalitions” (Bäckstrand & Elgström, 2013, p. 1382).

Yet the EU has drawn lessons from its failure in Copenhagen, and it managed to re‑establish itself as an actor in the global climate negotiations. In the years following Copenhagen, “the EU quietly made a comeback into a major role of influence again and achieved an agenda setting victory in being a driving force in launching the process that led to a deal in Paris” in 2015 (Parker, Karlsson, & Hjerpe, 2017, p. 246). The EU was indeed adopting a more realistic and pragmatic approach than it had done before, and it lowered its ambitions to a more realistic level. Moreover, aiming to avoid being a leader without having followers, the EU started to invest more in diplomatic coalition-building activities with third countries. That new role of the EU is described as that of a “leadiator,” referring to a combination of a “leader” and a “mediator” (Bäckstrand & Elgström, 2013).

The post-Copenhagen leadiator role of the EU culminated in the adoption of the Paris Agreement in December 2015, which is considered a diplomatic success for the EU (Oberthür, 2016; Oberthür & Groen, 2018; Parker, Karlsson, & Hjerpe, 2017; Torney & Cross, 2018). The main achievements of the EU are the legal form of the agreement (an UN-wide treaty), “a five-year review cycle, mitigation commitments for all countries and a rules-based system” (Oberthür, 2016, p. 3). To ensure these results, the EU invested in building and supporting the High Ambition Coalition with like-minded countries pushing for an ambitious outcome in Paris, which was nonetheless less ambitious than what the EU had initially advocated in the run-up to Copenhagen six years earlier.

The literature on the EU’s role and involvement in global climate governance has focused on a number of overarching issues. The EU’s unity, leadership, and place in the international constellation of power are among the topics that have received most scholarly attention. First, despite the diverging climate preferences of member states, the EU has managed “to hold together and present a unified negotiation front” in international negotiations (Anderson, 2009, p. 136). Indeed, since the mid-1990s, the EU operates as a single bloc in these negotiations, allowing it to present a coherent message. Intense preparatory work leading to robust and detailed EU positions (Oberthür & Roche Kelly, 2008) and a negotiation arrangement with lead negotiators, giving ownership and co-responsibility to member states and the Commission (Delreux & Keukeleire, 2017), pave the way for EU unity. This coherence is important, as climate change is a field of shared competences, as a result of which both the EU and the member states are parties to international climate treaties. However, building unity in the EU also comes with a cost as intra-EU coordination is time-consuming and can sometimes come at the expense of outreach and coalition-building with negotiation partners.

Second, the predominant view in the literature is that the EU has played a leadership role in climate change negotiations (Oberthür & Roche Kelly, 2008; Schreurs & Tiberghien, 2007; Vogler, 2005; Wurzel & Connelly, 2017). The literature usually distinguishes between structural, directional, and idea-based leadership—and concludes that the EU has developed the three leadership modes, but “primarily relied on directional leadership” (Parker & Karlsson, 2010, p. 928). Directional leadership refers to the EU “leading by example,” that is, adopting strong climate policies domestically in order to convince third countries to do the same in their national contexts. The adoption of the 2020 and 2030 targets clearly illustrates that dynamic. Yet the EU’s leadership has also been criticized in the literature, with authors arguing that the EU has not fully exploited its leadership potential and that it is not perceived as a leader by its negotiation partners (Fischer & Geden, 2015; Parker, Karlsson, & Hjerpe, 2017; Parker & Karlsson, 2010; Schunz, 2012).

Third, the international context in which the EU conducts its climate diplomacy has considerably changed since the early 1990s. Whereas the negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol were still largely determined by transatlantic dynamics, the Copenhagen and Paris negotiations were strongly characterized by multipolar power dynamics (Bodansky, 2010; Falkner, Stephan, & Vogler, 2010). Moreover, the increased importance of emerging powers and the fact that other countries have overtaken the EU as one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases have reduced the EU’s weight and bargaining power in global climate governance. Yet, with the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement, the leadership structure in climate change negotiations is again changing. Although being a setback for worldwide climate governance, it can also be an opportunity for the EU to fill the gap that the United States is leaving and to take up an important role in the future.


The European Union has adopted a comprehensive set of climate policies internally and promoted ambitious climate agreements externally since the 1990s. Various pieces of climate legislation establishing a carbon market, diverse regulatory frameworks at the EU level, and overarching targets for member states to be implemented at the national level have been adopted. They are all part of an effort to implement short-, medium-, and long-term targets that the EU established for itself. The policies that were initially adopted mainly aimed to pick the “low-hanging fruit.” They will not suffice to achieve the EU’s long-term goals—and ultimately to effectively address the challenge of climate change and keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. On the contrary, the solution requires a major overhaul of some of the basic premises of the EU’s policies in sectors such as energy, transport, agriculture, and industry.

The EU’s internal climate change policies are deeply interwoven with its external action in this field. The climate negotiations at the global level had a major impact on internal policy developments at the EU level. The EU’s main climate policy instrument, the ETS, has been designed in response to developments at the international level. Moreover, the EU made progress in adopting more ambitious climate policies and targets in the run-up to the international climate change conferences and in the implementation of the climate agreements that were negotiated there. Desiring to “lead by example” at those global meetings, the EU has also played a leading—and sometimes influential—role at international climate conferences. However, the EU’s international track record strongly varies. The EU obtained successes at important international climate conferences such as Kyoto (1997), Marrakesh (2001), and Paris (2015), but its diplomacy failed at the Copenhagen conference (2009). The EU’s performance and achievement in the current international climate negotiations are very much dependent on the context in which the EU is acting, with major uncertainties and shifts of power on the international scene. One of the main challenges for the EU’s climate policies will be to cope with this changing context. As the ambition and the sustainability of the EU’s internal climate policies strongly depend on external developments, it remains key for the EU to encourage its international partners to make similar choices in their domestic climate policies.


This work was supported by the Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique–FNRS under Grant T.0064.19.

Further Reading

Several academic books provide overviews and analyses of the EU’s climate policy. Although they do not cover the most recent developments, the volumes edited by Jordan, Huitema, van Asselt, Rayner, and Berkhout (2010) and by Oberthür and Pallemaerts (2010b) analyze the climate policy of the EU until the end of the 2000s. A more recent book, discussing the EU’s various climate policies until 2015 and their underlying rationales, is edited by Delbeke and Vis (2015b), both from the European Commission’s Directorate-General of Climate Action. Whereas these books primarily focus on policies, Boasson and Wettestad (2013) use a policymaking perspective and provide an analysis of how climate policies are developed in the EU, looking at both public actors and private stakeholders. Detailed accounts of the history, challenges, and achievements of the ETS can be found in Wettestad (2014) and in Wettestad and Jevnaker (2016). The reports by the European Environment Agency (e.g., EEA, 2017) provide essential data and analyses for understanding the achievement and challenges of EU climate policy. The performance of the EU as an actor in global climate negotiations is properly discussed by Oberthür (2011) as well as Bäckstrand and Elgström (2013). The books by Schunz (2014) and by Afionis (2017) present in-depth analyses of the role of the EU in the 1990s and 2000s (until Copenhagen). The EU’s international role in the Paris and post-Paris era is discussed by Oberthür (2016) and Oberthür and Groen (2018).


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