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The European Union has become an increasingly central player in international environmental politics. Its role, especially as a protagonist to the United States, has been highlighted by the way in which it successfully led the campaign for ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. The 2005 UK presidency has made climate change one of its twin priorities along with African development, and it is with this in mind that the article discusses the way in which the Union can be considered an international environmental actor in its own right and the various contributions that it makes to global environmental governance. While the EU is well known as a trade actor the complexities of its role as an environmental actor, operating under shared competence between the member states and the Community, are less well understood. Despite the inherent difficulties it has been surprisingly effective, although in areas such as climate change there is a need for strong presidential leadership.

The EU's most evident field of activity has concerned the many multilateral environmental agreements in which it has come to play a leading role. However, this does not exhaust its contribution to global environmental governance that extends to the dissemination of norms and the incorporation of partners in its accession and neighbourhood policies. Sustainable development is also a key area of internal and external Union endeavour at the WTO and elsewhere, although there are continuing contradictions arising from its agricultural and fisheries policies. Finally, the Union's credibility will rest upon its ability to implement its environmental commitments and this is nowhere more evident than in its new emissions trading system. This is the centrepiece of the EU's commitment to the Kyoto Protocol and it is the need to co-ordinate the Union's diplomacy in the extension of the climate change regime, to include the United States and the developing countries, that the UK presidency must address.