European Unilateralism and Involuntary Burden Sharing in Global Climate Policy


Powerful political actors in the international system quite frequently adopt unilateral
policies whose effects extend beyond their respective borders. Often, they do so to avoid lowest common-denominator outcomes in areas where they desire more ambitious international rules, and to motivate or coerce other countries to shoulder a part of the burden associated with problem solving. The European Union’s attempts to enlist non-EU countries in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the international aviation sector are a typical example.

While climate policy making at the global level remains in a state of paralysis the European Union is committed to move ahead unilaterally. Public support for such unilateralism appears quite high, despite the economic crisis in Europe. However, in particular areas of climate policy, where unilateralism might result in competitive disadvantages for European industries vis-à-vis non-EU industries, debates over appropriate measures for creating a „level playing field“ have arisen. Proposals for one such measure, carbon-related border adjustments – i.e. special tariffs on imported goods, based on their embodied carbon dioxide emissions – have been met with great skepticism inside and outside the EU and have not been implemented by any country.

Attempts to enact another measure that involves a level playing field challenge have been somewhat more successful. In 2012, the EU started implementing a policy that subjects all airlines operating flights between, from and to EU member countries to its cap-and-trade Emissions Trading System (ETS), no matter whether airlines are based in the EU or not. The new rules cover emissions during the entire flight, including those occurring outside EU airspace. This means that the EU is unilaterally applying its rules for aircraft emissions not only within, but also beyond EU borders. Emissions from aircraft have grown strongly in the past decades and climate scientists agree that there is an urgent need to reverse this trend.

In late 2012, in response to strong opposition from China, India, the United States, and a few other countries, the EU suspended the application of the new rules to flights from and to destinations outside the EU (but applies and enforces the rules within the EU). It also noted, however, that the (partial) suspension was only temporary, was meant to allow for the re-opening of previously failed negotiations on a global solution through the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and would be lifted if global negotiations in the ICAO did not lead to an agreement on regulating airline emissions soon. Thus far, no progress has been made in ICAO, and it remains unclear what the EU will do if no multilateral solution can be found. Notably, it is unclear whether the EU could continue to apply the policy only to EU-based airlines and permanently exempt others, particularly if currently low carbon prices in the ETS, which make compliance rather inexpensive, picked up again.

Coming back to the potential effects of unilateralism on third countries, interesting questions arise. Will the new EU policy motivate other countries to adopt similar policies, unilaterally or via a global agreement negotiated in ICAO? Or will it result in negative responses, for instance retaliatory policies by other countries against the EU that could undermine the EU initiative?

Assuming that public opinion matters in climate policy, we should be interested in how the new EU policy regulating emissions of aircraft affects public opinion in non-EU countries that are directly affected by this policy. To find out we implemented survey embedded experiments in India and the United States, the two largest democracies (where public opinion should be particularly influential) outside the EU. We were particularly interested in the extent to which the public there evaluates the new EU policy based on economic cost and sovereignty concerns. The reason is that the new EU policy will increase air transport costs for companies and individuals, and that it could also be perceived as violating third countries’ sovereignty by regulating carbon emissions within their airspace.

The results show that both considerations matter. They imply mixed news for frontrunners in climate policy, particularly in areas where their unilateral policies affect other countries. High costs imposed on individuals in other countries reduce public support for the EU’s policy there, and they increase support for sector specific retaliation (e.g., higher landing fees for EU airlines in those countries). Framing those costs with polluter pays, climate risk reduction, or economic co-benefits arguments does not mitigate the negative effect of a high cost increase. Improved framing of the EU’s unilateral climate policy is, therefore, unlikely to reduce opposition by non-EU countries. These findings are clearly undesirable from the viewpoint of those hoping that the EU’s unilateral move could motivate – via positive effects on public opinion in third countries – other governments to follow up with similar policies at national and/or international levels, or at least to refrain from trying to undermine EU climate policy for the airlines sector (as the U.S. Congress has done with a law barring U.S. based airlines from complying with the EU’s rules).

The more positive news, from the perspective of those seeking stronger measures against climate change, is that our high cost treatments in the survey experiment are at the extreme end of current expert estimates of cost implications for airlines and passengers from non-EU countries; and only the most extreme and explicit sovereignty treatment induces significant negative reactions. In addition, we observe very little support for non-sector specific retaliation, which could impose high costs on Europe if it escalated into a trade war. This means that in what we think is a more realistic scenario, with moderate cost and sovereignty implications, publics in non-EU countries are unlikely to push their respective governments toward aggressive responses that could not only prevent a reduction of emissions from aircraft in non-EU countries, but could also undermine the EU effort as such. By implication, this also means that opposition from voters and consumers in third countries against the unilateral EU policy is likely to remain rather weak unless the airline industry and governments in those countries succeed in whipping it up via extreme (and arguably unrealistic) statements about cost implications and violations of sovereignty. Overall, and particularly in view of currently low carbon prices in the ETS, which create low compliance costs, this suggests that ambitious unilateral initiatives by frontrunners are feasible.