Europe's green power

Mats Engström
25 March 2007

By 2020, it was becoming clear that the European Union's climate debate and decisions in 2006-07 had been a turning-point in public awareness and public policy whose effects were to be felt worldwide. The twin summits of that year in Germany - the EU's fiftieth anniversary gathering in Berlin on 24-25 March 2007, and the G8 meeting in Heiligendamm on 6-8 June - were remembered as the moment when Europe registered the importance of the issue and began to lead the world in transforming this understanding into a new dynamic of policy change.

It would take time even for the radical changes of energy and transport policy that Europe initiaited then really to improve the situation: a climate system already subjected to so much damage is slow in responding. But the alternative, including larger long-term impacts on sea-level rise and ecosystems, would have been far worse.

The climate announcement embodied in the "Berlin declaration" on 25 March 2007 was modest: "We intend jointly to lead the way in energy policy and climate protection and make our contribution to averting the global threat of climate change". But in including the fight against climate change as one of the tasks for the union - part of the desperate attempt to find a new purpose and future after the European constitution was rejected in referenda in France and the Netherlands in 2005 - the European Union regained a momentum that, once more, chimed with humanity's and the planet's needs in the 21st century.

Mats Engström is editorial writer at the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. He was special advisor and deputy state secretary to Anna Lindh from 1994-2001, and is author of Rebooting Europe: Digital Deliberation and European Democracy (Foreign Policy Centre, 2002). His website is here

Also by Mats Engström in openDemocracy:

"The European Union and genetic information: time to act"
(July 2003)

"Remember Anna Lindh"
(September 2003)

"Democracy is hard, but the only way"
(June 2005)

"The fear haunting Europe"
(26 May 2006)

"We still love the Swedish model"
(19 September 2006)

Europe's green path

Manuel Castells had formulated one way forward years before in his trilogy on the "network society". The Spanish sociologist proposed building support for the EU by developing "project identities" around issues important to citizens. This concept was embraced by national governments, although their choices of projects differed according to political priorities. Climate change and protection of eco-systems in general was one area where they could finally agree.

Much had already been done. Environmental policy is a European success story, with the EU leading the world in global negotiations. By 2007, more than 200 directives had already improved waste-water quality, decreased emissions from industries and power plants, encouraged recycling and preserved biological diversity. However, environmental policy had recently lost some momentum, while concern about the competitiveness of European companies moved up the political agenda.

After 2007, Europe stepped up into a new gear. This happened particularly after the elections to the European parliament and a dynamic new commission, both in the vital consolidating year of 2009.

Now, by 2020, European companies are world leaders in green technology. They have found new markets as tougher international competition has reduced traditional jobs in industry and service production. Companies gave added value to their products and services by increasing their eco-efficiency, as they did in other areas to meet competition by moving further up the value chain.

The fear that ambitious environmental policy would harm competitiveness has been proven wrong. It has been more often the other way around. European car manufacturers found themselves in crisis when Japanese companies such as Toyota led the development of cars with low fuel consumption, for example hybrid cars. One reason was that the EU had succumbed to intense lobbying in the 1990s and failed to introduce legislation promoting cars with low CO2-emissions (which California did and Japanese manufacturers were quick to utilise). In 2007, member-states watered down an excellent commission plan for energy-efficiency. Fortunately, two factors - climate change and the fear of being over-dependent on authoritarian Russia - led policymakers to adopt a far-reaching action program for energy- and eco-efficiency in 2009.

It is not only industry that has become greener since then. Emissions from power plants have been reduced, waste water is cleaner and recycling has improved. It has been more difficult to deal with transport, agriculture and other diffuse sources of pollution. Still, tough legislation, environmental taxes, and better public transport have improved the situation. Intense agriculture, using large amounts of fertilisers and insecticides, has decreased in favour of ecological products.

The reform of the common agricultural policy, necessary in world-trade negotiations and made possible by the French presidential election in 2007, has proved less difficult for farmers than foreseen. In fact, the combination of more ecological forms of production with well known European brands proved a success on world markets. ("A Camembert tastes even better with an eco-label", as the French now say).

Ministers for energy, transport, fisheries and finance have made sustainable development a key component of their policy. The "Cardiff process" of integrating environmental issues, based on the Amsterdam treaty, had started during the British presidency in 1998 but later lost momentum. It was reinvigorated by German chancellor Angela Merkel at the June 2007 summit.

Strategic decisions by investors and transnational companies have also contributed to the rapid development of more eco-efficient technology. Developments in the United States encouraged European investors to put more emphasis on the environmental performance of companies. Pension funds and insurance companies were among the first movers.

A global alliance

Many problems remain. In some member-states, implementation of environmental legislation is slow. Globally, some countries are free-riders, not taking on commitments appropriate for their level of economic development. The most significant players have however reached a kind of consensus. The EU, the United States, Japan, China, India, Russia and Brazil still disagree on many issues, but the most turbulent years now seem to have passed.

A number of factors contributed to the progress in global environmental policy. The political and public-policy shifts in the United States were crucial. In 2007, twenty states had signed up to a more ambitious climate policy than the George W Bush administration's position. After the Democrats won the 2008 presidential election, Washington changed its attitude towards binding targets for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, developed other parts of its environmental policy and subsequently regained its position as a global leader.

The US seemed ready to take on more of its responsibility, and the EU developed efficient measures, such as a better emission-trading system. To begin with, this was not enough to convince others. Negotiations on climate change and other international environmental issues were stalled by rapidly developing countries such as China and India, and by authoritarian oil-rich countries such as Russia and some middle-eastern states.

The situation was further complicated by the renminbi-dollar crisis in the early 2010s, when the US introduced trade tariffs on Chinese products and Beijing responded by replacing dollars with euros in its currency reserve, prompting financial convulsions around the globe.

This was the moment when the European Union and its member-states again came into their own - showing leadership by building an alliance with the least developing countries, which also contained the areas most affected by climate change and the degradation of natural resources. The key to success was delivering on promises of increased development assistance, debt reduction and reduced trade barriers. The EU also learned to listen better to the views of developing countries and began to create real partnerships; the example of the Basel convention in the 1990s, where the EU and the G77 group of developing countries worked together to ban exports of dangerous waste from rich to poor countries, was an inspiration. Non-governmental organisations from the north and the south, working more closely together than before, can claim a large part of the credit for this alliance.

The reforms of the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund in the wake of this period of crisis increased transparency and gave developing countries more influence, which made them in turn more prepared to discuss difficult issues such as trade and the environment. The United Nations created an Economic Security Council to provide more stability to the world economy. One of its primary concerns was to reduce speculation in currencies and commodities. The extremely rapid price fluctuations were halted in favour of long-term investment and human development in poor countries.

Discussions with China became easier as the modernised Communist Party understood it had to take more effective action against water scarcity and land degradation if it was to remain in power and govern well. The reform of state-owned enterprises reduced heavily polluting industry and the building of welfare system provided an occasion to introduce environmental taxes. The latter proved particularly effective after stringent measures against corruption were implemented at last.

India, a regular voice of developing countries, found that it was more difficult to remain in that position when the EU and large parts of the G77 formed alliances. The growing middle-class demanded environmental reforms and was reinforced by a private sector that faced green competition from abroad. When the monsoon rains were drastically reduced for the third year in a row, causing massive problems with food supply, India became a driving force for stronger international agreements against climate change.

Russia was the hardest nut to crack. It was not until the "June revolution" demanded democratic reform and an end to corruption that non-governmental organisations could work freely in Russia and independent media recover its status. The subsequent media exposure of the country's massive environmental and health damage helped build Russian public opinion in favour of radical environmental measures. The cleverly designed climate agreements made it possible for Russian companies to make big profits by energy conservation and reduced emissions, finally convincing the Kremlin too.

Also in openDemocracy on the European Union at fifty:

Aurore Wanlin, "The European Union at fifty: a second life"
(15 March 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "European unity: reality and myth"
(21 March 2007)

Frank Vibert, "The European Union in 2057"
(22 March 2007)

George Schöpflin, "The European Union's troubled birthday"
(23 March 2007)

The far side

The European Union had been a stronger, shaping influence than before in helping to facilitate these changes. The success of the euro, the coordination of external economic policy and further enlargement all increased its political clout. In 2007, Europe's political leaders had recognised the link between environment and security in an unprecedented way. The security strategy of the EU was given a green dimension. A further beneficial consequence was that later conflicts over water and other resources were analysed more thoroughly, and the understanding of migration flows caused by climate change or depletion of land was integrated within wider environmental and human-security perspectives.

When the revived, focused new European constitution finally entered into force, the European Union's foreign policy too could become more effective. A greater role for green diplomacy was one of the results. The previous infighting between the council secretariat and the commission was reduced. The union's could really prove its value by using all of its instruments in trying to convince other of the need to move forward on the environment.

In retrospect, policymakers and many other key players active in the momentous years 2007-09 are owed a debt of gratitude for their far-sightedness. In that pivotal period, the much discussed "soft power" of the European Union acquired a new dimension. Europe's green power became an established fact of political life, spreading its influence in the world and increasing the quality of life for its citizens - thus contributing to its own legitimacy.

To promise a more ambitious environmental policy in 2007 and then delivering results was the source of renewal for the EU - not a bad way of celebrating a fiftieth birthday.

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