The European Union and the Paris Agreement: leader, mediator, or bystander?


  • Conflict of interest: The authors have declared no conflicts of interest for this article.
  • Edited by Karin Bäckstrand, Domain Editor, and Mike Hulme, Editor-in-Chief


After its defeat at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, the EU can be considered to have scored a relative success with the Paris Agreement adopted in December 2015. With the mitigation ambition of the agreement exceeding expectations, the EU realized its policy objectives to a greater extent than it may have anticipated itself. This success was made possible by a moderation of the EU’s policy objectives pursued proactively through an EU bridge-building and coalition-building strategy. It was enabled and facilitated by the great-power politics between China and the US as well as the French Presidency of the Paris conference. With Paris, the EU thus appears to have consolidated its role as a ‘leadiator’ in international climate policy, which it took on after the failure of the Copenhagen conference and road-tested for the first time in Durban in 2011. In a multipolar climate world, this new role model should remain relevant for the years to come. However, the unpredictability of the underlying internal and external political, economic, and technological dynamics suggests the wisdom of a regular review and adjustment of strategy. WIREs Clim Change 2017, 8:e445. doi: 10.1002/wcc.445

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The European Union and its member states (in the following: the EU) have traditionally been considered as an international leader on climate change. The EU has been a key driving force in the development of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its Kyoto Protocol.[1-7] It has also implemented an increasingly comprehensive set of ambitious domestic climate (and energy) policies.[8-11] As a result, it had as of 2014 reduced its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by more than 24% from 1990 levels and increased the share of renewable energy in final energy consumption to 16% (2004: 8.5%) (see Figure 1).[12]

Figure 1.

EU greenhouse gas emissions (1990–2014), share of renewable energy in final energy consumption (2004–2014) and energy consumption (2005–2014) (in %). The EU's target of improving energy efficiency by 20% by 2020 corresponds to an absolute reduction of energy consumption by 13% from 2005 levels. Source: (a) Eurostat and (b) European Environment Agency.

However, the EU's role in international climate policy has changed profoundly over the last decade or so, not least as a result of an acute challenge of its traditional leadership role. The Copenhagen climate summit in 2009 saw an unprecedented marginalization of the EU.[13-15] In response, the EU adjusted its strategy, not least adapting to the rise of newly emerging economies (including the BASIC countries: Brazil, South Africa, India and China) and the reengagement of the US under President Obama. In particular, it invested in building a broad coalition of ambitious parties across the North–South divide and built bridges with and between other actors: it became a ‘leadiator’ (i.e., a leader and mediator).[16, 17] In this recalibrated role, it was a major driving force behind the launch of the Durban Platform in 2011 to elaborate ‘a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force’ for adoption in Paris in 2015.[16, 18]

As the conditions of international politics in general and of international climate politics in particular continue to evolve,[19-21] we here ask how well the EU performed, and what role it played, in the negotiations on the Paris Agreement on climate change adopted in Paris on December 12, 2015. Did the EU deploy its full potential to try to move the world toward effective climate protection? Addressing these questions, we in the following argue that: (1) the EU has continued to pursue a leadiator role in the Paris negotiating process and (2) that the EU has, in combination with other actors and under evolving circumstances, been relatively successful in influencing and shaping the Paris Agreement.

EU Effectiveness and Performance: Clarifying the Concepts

Before turning to the empirical exploration of the EU's role in the Paris process, we clarify the key concepts and criteria that we will employ in this analysis. The literature on the EU's effectiveness and performance in international institutions and negotiations puts forward varying understandings of and criteria for ‘effectiveness’ and ‘performance.’[22-25] In this context, ‘effectiveness’ usually refers to the degree to which an actor achieves its goals. By contrast, ‘performance’ may incorporate additional criteria such as efficiency, relevance, and financial viability.[23] We here apply three criteria to assess the EU's ‘performance’ that we have developed in more detail elsewhere.[24] All three criteria closely relate to ‘effectiveness’ understood as ‘goal achievement.’

The first performance criterion concerns the quality of the EU's policy objectives. Accordingly, the EU's policy objectives can be more or less ambitious in attempting to realize the main purpose of an international institution such as the UNFCCC. The criterion has an important relative dimension, since we would also want to know whether the EU was more or less ambitious than other major actors (such as the US and China). Ambitious policy objectives that require changing the status quo are generally known to be particularly difficult to achieve,[26, 27] which constituted one factor among others contributing to the EU's ‘failure’ in Copenhagen in 2009.[13-15]

The second performance criterion relates to the way in which the EU engages in the international negotiations. Active engagement through making written submissions, intervening in discussions, and reaching out to partners generally enhances the chances of success. It is particularly crucial for actors that pursue relatively ambitious policy objectives that require policy change. Unless they are in a quasi-hegemonic position, such ambitious actors also need to solicit support and engage in coalition-building in order to be successful. This requires outreach to partners. In a multipolar system, an actor may, as a mediator, pursue opportunities for brokering and bridge-building in order to enhance its chances of success.[28]

Finally, ‘goal achievement’ remains an important indicator of EU performance firmly established in the literature.[22, 23, 29] It requires comparing the EU's main policy objectives with the outcome of the international negotiations, irrespective of actual EU influence. While it may not be possible to exactly quantify the degree of goal achievement, we should at least be able to distinguish between low, medium, and high levels.[30] We should take care, however, not to equate goal achievement with EU influence. For example, a high degree of goal achievement may be the result of the interaction of other actors with little EU involvement. Low levels of goal achievement, in turn, could still mean that the EU made a significant difference with its diplomatic activities. These methodological difficulties are well known in research on the effectiveness of international regimes.[31, 32] Assessing to what extent ‘goal achievement’ was the effect of the EU's activities requires an analysis of the process, as addressed above.

Applying the three criteria should allow us to answer the question whether the EU acted as a leader, bystander or ‘leadiator’ in the negotiations on the Paris Agreement. As an international leader, the EU would be expected to pursue highly ambitious policy objectives and to realize them to a high degree through its activities.[33] If it did not manage to influence the negotiations through its activities, it may be called a bystander (irrespective of the quality of its policy objectives). It could be characterized as a leadiator if it tried, with some success, to advance moderately ambitious policy objectives through building bridges and coalitions.[16]

Core EU Objectives for Paris: Moderately Ambitious

The mitigation of GHG emissions and ensuring related transparency was the top priority for the EU toward Paris. In this respect, the EU in Paris pursued four main objectives. First, it advocated the conclusion of an international treaty binding all countries. Second, this treaty was supposed to contain ‘fair, ambitious and quantifiable mitigation commitments by all parties.’[34] In this context, the EU itself early on submitted the highest ‘intended nationally determined contribution’ (INDC) of the major players, namely a GHG emission reduction of at least 40% by 2030 (from 1990 levels). Third, since the mitigation efforts by parties were nevertheless considered insufficient for limiting the increase of global mean temperature to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, the EU asked for the treaty to contain a review mechanism that would allow a regular increase in ambition every 5 years. Finally, the EU insisted on robust common rules for parties to ensure transparency of and accountability for mitigation actions. In addition, the EU also advocated an unspecified ‘long-term global mitigation goal in line with the below 2°C objective.’[34]

EU policy objectives on mitigation were the most ambitious among the major players, but more moderate than what would be required to achieve the 2°C target. Not only was the EU's INDC higher than those of the US and China, who pledged, respectively, a GHG emission reduction of 26–28% from 2005 levels by 2025 and a peaking of CO2 emissions ‘around’ 2030 together with an increase in CO2 emission intensity of 60–65% from the 2005 level.[35] This holds true even if the EU's baseline of 1990 (the base year established in the UNFCCC) was changed to the base year of 2005 for obvious reasons selected by the United States. In this case, the EU target would be around 35% (whereas the US target translates into a reduction of 15–17% from 1990 levels). The US and China were also more reluctant on some of the other points pursued by the EU. For example, the United States was less adamant on robust rules on transparency and accountability and could not accept that achieving its pledge would become binding in the envisaged treaty. China—while generally advocating less stringent rules for developing countries—was less forthcoming with respect to transparency and a regular 5-yearly review.[36] At the same time, the EU's demands had gradually become more moderate since the Copenhagen conference. At Paris, it, for example, no longer requested: (1) immediate agreement on detailed rules for transparency and accountability and (2) binding emission reduction commitments by all countries in line with what would be required for respecting the 2°C target according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.[37]

In this respect, the Paris conference constituted the end point of a process since 2009 in which the EU consistently advocated ambition. The persistent and successful resistance by other parties helped moderate EU ambitions and framed the EU position toward Paris. At the Durban conference in 2011, the EU—together with many developing countries—succeeded in launching the ‘Durban Platform’ to elaborate ‘a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force’ to be adopted in Paris. It enabled this agreement by conceding itself a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol from 2013 to 2020.[16] In Warsaw in 2013, the EU failed to convince other parties of the benefits of a more coordinated approach in elaborating the mitigation commitments and lost the battle over ‘commitments’ versus ‘contributions.’ It did, however, secure an invitation to all parties to submit INDCs ‘well in advance’ of the Paris conference. The subsequent Lima conference in 2014 furthermore agreed that the secretariat would prepare a synthesis report of submitted INDCs.[38, 39]

On two other central elements of the Paris negotiations—climate finance and adaptation (including ‘loss and damage’)—the EU had more defensive positions (much in line with its previous objectives in these areas). It acknowledged the importance of adaptation to the impacts of climate change, but did not see a crucial role for international obligations in this field. While it was eager to build bridges to vulnerable developing countries, it tried to prevent far-reaching outcomes on ‘loss and damage’ that could have implied liability and compensation. On finance, the EU was determined to prevent quantified long-term legal obligations and strongly advocated widening the circle of contributing countries as well as shifting the focus to broader private investment streams beyond public contributions and to improve domestic enabling environments for climate investments.[37]

Overall, the EU's position toward and at the Paris conference can be characterized as moderately ambitious. The EU was pushing for a relatively ambitious outcome, especially regarding GHG emission mitigation, while taking more defensive lines on climate finance and adaptation. In response to unyielding resistance by other major players, the EU gradually scaled down its ambitions, especially regarding mitigation commitments for 2025/2030. It tried to align its more moderate position with what would be required to stay on a below-2°C track by demanding firm provisions on transparency and accountability and a regular review that would support ambition over time.

High Level of EU Goal Achievement: The Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement has been heralded as ‘unprecedented,’ ‘historic’ and a ‘landmark’[40] in general and as a specific success for the EU. In particular, it exceeded expectations regarding mitigation ambition and thereby brought it close to what the EU had advocated.[41-44] Comparing EU policy objectives with the relevant provisions of the Paris Agreement substantiates the high level of EU goal achievement.

The Paris Agreement's provisions on mitigation take on board most of what the EU had pursued at the Paris conference. Article 2.1(a) even goes beyond the EU's ambitions with respect to the long-term temperature goal because it, in addition to affirming the well established 2°C target, also foresees ‘pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels’ (a long-standing ask of small island states). The Agreement furthermore, as advocated by the EU, (1) constitutes a binding international treaty, (2) obliges all parties to take on mitigation obligations (called ‘nationally determined contributions’—NDCs), (3) foresees robust rules on transparency and accountability for all parties, and (4) establishes a regular 5-yearly ‘stocktake’ and an obligation for all parties to submit new strengthened NDCs every 5 years. The EU had to make concessions especially with respect to overcoming the differentiation between developed and developing countries more fully, the level of detail of the rules agreed and—not least—the bindingness of the mitigation commitments. Also, a certain level of uncertainty remains as to what exactly was achieved in Paris, because the Agreement contains a long list of issues to be specified in the years to come, including with respect to the shape of future NDCs, the 5-yearly stocktake and parties’ reporting obligations.[41, 45-48] This high level of goal achievement was possible because of the aforementioned moderation of the EU's policy objectives in the run up to the conference. Hence, EU goal achievement would have a significantly lesser score if measured against the EU's objectives at the beginning of the negotiations around 2011.[37]

EU goal achievement was lower with respect to the issues of finance and adaptation, although the key ‘red lines’ were respected. Hence, the Paris Agreement does not contain any quantified financial targets or binding financial obligations for developed countries. The COP decision accompanying the agreement reaffirms the target of mobilizing USD 100 billion per year by 2020, extends it until 2025, and determines that parties will then agree future targets for the time thereafter. Concrete legal obligations in the Paris Agreement on finance are primarily related to enhanced reporting and review. On adaptation and loss and damage, the Paris Agreement hardly contains precise and prescriptive obligations. Most provisions are framed in soft and/or general terms, including a global goal on adaptation as well as the obligations to engage in adaptation planning and implementation, to submit and periodically update an adaptation communication, and to achieve a balance between finance for adaptation and mitigation. Loss and damage is addressed in a separate article, but primarily contains process commitments, while not providing a basis for claiming liability and compensation.[45, 47, 48]

EU Activities and Climate Diplomacy

At the time of the Paris conference, the EU was a middle power in international climate politics in an international constellation characterized by a trend toward multi-polarity, but with two heavyweights: the US and China. In 2012, the EU accounted for about 10% of global GHG emissions, with a downward trend. In comparison, China and the US were responsible for around 25 and 15%, respectively, with emissions in China forecast to continue to increase. Other countries accounted for much smaller shares.[49, 50] The EU's position was strengthened because its market and economy remain largest (in simple gross domestic product terms), but weakened by half a decade of financial and economic crises.

The EU's strategy toward the Paris conference was relatively consistent with its position in the international constellation of power and interests. As a medium-sized player aiming for a relatively ambitious outcome of the negotiations, (1) it displayed a high level of diplomatic activity both inside the UNFCCC and beyond, (2) it engaged in coalition-building in order to enhance the weight of its demands and (3) in bridge-building to broker and influence the outcome. Eventually, external conditions surrounding the Paris conference played in its favor as well.

First, the EU was one of the more active players in the negotiations toward Paris, especially during the final year. It was among the parties making most written submissions to the negotiating process and engaged actively in other forums such as the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, the G20, the informal ministerial meetings convened by the French COP Presidency, and in bilateral contacts, both at the UNFCCC negotiating sessions and beyond. The EU and its member states implemented a climate diplomacy action plan in 2015, as adopted by the Foreign Affairs Council, with the help of the European External Action Service (EEAS) and its re-energized Green Diplomacy Network. At least two diplomatic démarches were organized in 2015. Climate diplomacy also involved the highest political levels, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel driving the G7 Summit in June 2015 to accept decarbonization of the global economy over the course of this century as a long-term goal and issuing a joint declaration to similar effect with Brazil's president Roussef in August 2015. Other important outreach occurred from France to China and from France and Germany to India.[37, 41]

Building on the positive experience of Durban, an important part of the EU's efforts focused on coalition-building, especially with potential allies among developing countries. Efforts of the EU started from the Cartagena Dialogue for Progressive Action that had been set up in 2010 on the initiative of the UK and Australia to bring together ambitious countries from North and South (from all major negotiating groups). They also built on long-standing collaboration between the EU and African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. These efforts intensified in 2015 and culminated in the creation of the ‘High Ambition Coalition’ at the beginning of the second week of the Paris conference, spearheaded by the Marshall Islands and the EU. This coalition even included the United States and eventually also attracted Brazil as a member. Although it did not have a common agenda beyond generally advocating ‘high ambition,’ it proved important in providing additional leeway for the French Presidency of the Paris conference to err on the side of ambition when presenting its final proposal on December 12, 2015, which was accepted by all parties as a package deal.[37, 41-43]

The EU's bridge-building role can to some extent be considered part of its coalition-building strategy. Its more moderate policy objectives mentioned above facilitated reaching out to a greater number of parties and putting reputational pressure on players such as the United States and China, who could not portray EU demands as extreme anymore. It specifically reached out to least developed countries and small island states on adaptation and loss and damage as well as finance—both to enable the building of a broader high ambition coalition and to build bridges. On climate finance, EU member states put forward pledges amounting to half of the total contributions of USD 10 billion to the first replenishment of the Green Climate Fund in 2014/2015. In 2015, many EU member states including the UK, France and Germany also pledged substantial increases of their public climate finance contributions to 2020. Moreover, the EU worked together with the United States before Paris to find a solution for the legal form of the Agreement. This helped to comfort the United States whose participation hinged on the Agreement not requiring ratification by the US Senate that would not approve a climate treaty.[51] Before Paris, the EU provided support to a great number of developing countries for the development of their INDCs. At Paris, the EU submitted proposals for ambitious compromise text until the last day of the conference to the French Presidency.[37]

Although the EU apparently engaged in the right activities, the relatively high level of EU goal achievement, especially regarding mitigation ambition, was also promoted by external factors. The specter of Copenhagen and the mobilization of highest political levels helped align countries. Bilateral engagement of the United States and China helped address some of the thorniest issues in the negotiations, including the issue of ‘differentiation’ of responsibilities between developed and developing countries.[35, 41] Besides, the United States was motivated by the desire of outgoing President Obama to create a lasting climate legacy. Also, technological developments, notably regarding renewable energy, had enhanced the attractiveness of climate protection.

Last but not least, the French COP Presidency, which acted separately and independently from its EU member state status, played a crucial role in bringing about the Paris Agreement by creating trust in the run up to the conference as well as during the conference that enabled it to play the role of ‘honest broker,’ a task paradoxically facilitated by the terrorist attacks on the eve of the climate summit on November 13, 2015. The French Presidency, being itself in favor of an ambitious deal, provided fertile ground for the EU's efforts, including through the creation of the high ambition coalition.[41-43]


After its defeat at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, the EU can be considered to have scored a relative success with the Paris Agreement adopted in December 2015. With the mitigation ambition of the agreement exceeding expectations, the EU realized its policy objectives to a greater extent than it may have anticipated. This relatively high level of goal achievement was the merit of the EU itself, but was also furthered by situational external factors. It was made possible by a moderation of the EU's policy objectives that formed the basis of an effective EU bridge-building and coalition-building strategy. The EU pursued this strategy with vigor, including through activation of the climate diplomacy potential of the EEAS and the member states, especially over the last year of the run-up to Paris and in Paris itself. The relative success was bought dearly, though, by accepting an international agreement whose immediate pledges and commitments fall short of what would be required in view of the below 2/1.5°C temperature goal. It was enabled and facilitated by the great power politics between China and the United States as well as the French Presidency of the Paris conference.

With Paris, the EU thus appears to have consolidated its ‘leadiator’ role in international climate policy. This ‘leadiator’ role came about as the reinvention of EU leadership in the transition from a world in which the EU was a climate ‘superpower’ to a more multipolar world of international climate politics, as evidenced by the Copenhagen conference of 2009. First road-tested in Durban in 2011, the EU's leadiator role appears to have matured and become a more stable feature of international climate politics with the Paris Agreement.

At the same time, this role may well (need to) be subject to further adjustments in the future. Such adjustments may be driven both by internal and external developments, and their interaction. Internally, domestic policy and politics with its own vagaries will continue to shape the EU's role and policy objectives. Important elements are the elaboration of a raft of internal measures over the coming years to shape the EU's climate and energy policy framework to 2030 and beyond and the further unfolding of the multiple, successive EU crises (including the fallout of the UK Referendum decision of 23 June 2016 to leave the EU). Externally, the international political constellation will further evolve, shaped by underlying dynamics of economic and technological development as molded by the implementation of the Paris Agreement in the years to come. The current political and socio-economic trajectories would suggest that the EU's leadiator strategy will remain relevant for the years to come in a multipolar climate world, but regular reassessments to take account of new developments seem advisable.[21]


Sebastian Oberthür was a member of the German delegation and Lisanne Groen a member of the Belgian delegation at the Paris conference.