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.

More democratic legitimacy through civil society involvement in the UNFCCC negotiations?

This post is co-authored with Robert Gampfer.


International climate negotiations have become almost unimaginable without the participation of civil society organizations (CSOs). In 2011, 1490 organizations were accredited as observers; most of which were environmental groups, research institutions, and business associations (see the UNFCCC page on civil society participation). Moreover, 70% of national delegations to the COPs (2011) included CSO representatives among their members.

One of the main advantages of civil society involvement is ostensibly that it improves the democratic legitimacy of global climate governance, as both activists working in these organizations and political scientists agree. Legitimacy is often thought to be low since negotiations occur on an intergovernmental level far away from most citizens, despite the potentially large consequences a global climate agreement has for individuals through its implementation in domestic energy policies, carbon taxes, etc.

Civil society involvement can improve legitimacy by affecting both the process and the outcome of negotiations. First, CSOs can increase transparency of the process thus providing citizens with better information to hold their governments accountable (e.g. through elections) for their international policy. Second, CSOs may create a more balanced representation of society’s various interests regarding climate change. And third, CSOs often have expert knowledge on environmental issues that can help achieve outcomes potentially more effective in addressing global warming.

However, the question remains whether individual citizens actually agree with this account and perceive climate governance as more legitimate if civil society is involved. After all, CSOs might simply advance narrowly-defined special interests instead of improving overall representation. Furthermore, having a multitude of different organizations, in addition to governments, at the table could hamper and impede agreement on an effective climate treaty. Even though the behavior and influence of CSOs in the UNFCCC negotiations has been examined by many scientific studies (Bernauer and Betzold 2012, Schroeder et al. 2012), their effect on legitimacy has not been investigated. We have conducted several survey experiments with a large international participant sample via Amazon Mechanical Turk to answer this question (Bernauer and Gampfer 2013). The main results are summarized below.

In a first experiment, we asked participants which organizations they would include in their national delegation to the next COP. They had to pick representatives from a diverse pool of government agencies and CSOs. Most participants included government and CSO representatives more or less evenly (two or three each in a five-post delegation). Interestingly, there was no difference between treatment groups primed either with information that negotiations should be transparent and representative, that they should yield an effective outcome, or with no information at all. This suggests that individuals think civil society should be involved in global climate governance, but not necessarily because of reasons of transparency, representation, or effectiveness.

Diffusion everywhere: climate change policy

The NZZ reports:

Die brasilianische Regierung hat einen einen Erfolg im Klimaschutz vermelden können: Die Rate der Entwaldung im Amazonasgebiet ist dieses Jahr auf ein rekordtiefes Niveau gefallen. Die Nachricht fiel mitten in die erste Woche der Uno-Klimakonferenz, die dieses Jahr in der mexikanischen Stadt Cancún stattfindet. Und so wurde Brasilien von hier zahlreich anwesenden Nichtregierungsorganisationen zum Musterknaben im Klimaschutz erklärt und den anderen grossen Schwellenländern sowie den Industriestaaten als Beispiel empfohlen.

Two observations for the policy diffusion literature:

– There can indeed be quite clear indicators of success to which policy makers and other political actors actually pay attention (in this case, deforestation rates). So some of the strategies used to operationalize learning (e.g. here or here, and here for an overview) are quite plausible.

– Political actors can use information about success to push their agenda. Duh. But there is not enough work on this issue.

Climate and development challenges at Cancun

A guest post by Axel Michaelowa:

This year’s climate summit is held in the Mexican sea resort of Cancun, dominated by a sequence of high-rise hotels on a sandy spit. This “sun and sand” city and the negotiation venue embody the challenges of greeenhouse gas emissions mitigation in an exemplary manner. Despite a balmy 25°C air temperature, air conditioners run at full throttle. The negotiation venue consists of two parts at almost 20 km from the main hotels, necessitating huge fleets of buses running day and night. Spending three hours per day on these buses is not unusual if one wants to participate in one of the external side events.

The development challenge linked to international climate policy is embodied by the host country Mexico. On the one hand, Mexico is member of the OECD and thus should embark on greenhouse gas mitigation. On the other hand, it is looking for international subsidies for a substantial share of its mitigation portfolio. For example, a programme of “green mortgages” for energy efficient new housing is one of the first “nationally appropriate mitigation actions” for which Mexico wants to get financing by the highly industrialized countries. This is unsurprising, given that all developing countries and emerging economies are vying for chunks of the 30 billion $ “fast start” finance for emissions mitigation and adaptation to climate change pledged in Copenhagen. But whether this money will really be “new and additional” is very doubtful. Martin Stadelmann (CIS) presented his analysis of possible baselines for determination of additionality of climate finance at a well-attended side event (see also his CIS Working Paper with Timmons Roberts and Axel Michaelowa). The discussion at this event was dominated by the question whether donor countries in the past correctly reported development assistance for mitigation. Our own research (see Katharina and Axel Michaelowa’s paper on “Coding error or statistical embellishment”) had found serious examples of misreporting, which has now prompted the OECD to ask their member states for a reassessment of their projects.

The main challenge of Cancun is to provide momentum in international climate policy after the high profile failure of the Copenhagen summit in December 2009. Otherwise, the climate negotiations might suffer from “WTO syndrome” – i.e. an increasing irrelevance for the international media and policymakers. But a surprisingly sober mood has prevailed in the first week of negotiations. Issues that had been contentious for several years such as the inclusion of carbon capture and storage in the Clean Development Mechanism were quietly resolved during the first week. Whether the tropical climate of Cancun has softened negotiators’ attitudes or whether this is due to the low-key nature of the conference remains unclear.

Climate Change and Security

Research on the security implications of climate change started in the mid-1990s and has by now become one of the most productive interdisciplinary activities in which political scientists cooperate closely with natural scientists, engineers, and economists. One major result so far is that claims by many policy-makers and also some scientists that climate change increases the risk of civil wars or even interstate wars rests on very shaky empirical foundations. Ongoing research suggests, however, that climate change may increase risks of (non-state) communal violence. While research on the climate change – security nexus is making good progress in collecting and analyzing data on the past, efforts are under way to also couple climate and hydrological models with political and economic models to understand risks that climate change may create for socio-economic wellbeing and conflict over the coming decades.

If you are interested in catching up on the state of the art in this research area: many of the most productive researchers in this area have recently met in Trondheim, Norway, at a conference organized by the Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences and Letters and the Peace Research Institute Oslo. You will find the program and most of the papers here.

Zurich CMA

About two weeks ago, I posted some information about the new Zurich based network of people from universities and private firms interested in the evolution of carbon markets with the objective to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. The new organization, the “Zurich Carbon Market Association” (Zurich CMA) now also has its own website which can be consulted for further information:

A new Zurich-based network for the evolution of sustainability focused and high-quality carbon markets

A few weeks ago we were part of the foundation of the Zurich Carbon Market Association (Zurich CMA), an association bringing together researchers and people from private companies based in the Zurich region who share an interest in the development of market mechanisms for climate change mitigation.

Well, as we learnt from the initial Zurich CMA workshop “Carbon markets on the road from Copenhagen to Cancun” on Monday, 15 March, at ETH Zurich, some people even believe market mechanism should be applied to climate change adaptation in the future.

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