The European Union’s (EU) climate diplomacy has changed dramatically since the early 2010s. Previously relying on a ‘leadership-by-example’ approach primarily concerned with the external projection of its domestic policies, the EU profoundly adapted its climate diplomacy strategy between the 2009 Copenhagen COP 15 and the 2015 Paris COP 21. This reimagined strategy was further solidified in the aftermath of the Paris Climate Conference. The EU’s redesigned climate diplomacy focuses on stronger – cooperative and adversarial – bilateral relations with significant emitters and greater flexibility in its positions and actions. (“The European Union’s Strategic Turn in Climate Diplomacy …”)

It is a widely held and, at first glance, plausible belief that the European Union (EU) is the world leader in combating dangerous global climate change. Since the early 1990s, the EU has committed to unilateral and relatively high reduction targets for greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, the EU has ensured the implementation of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the only legally binding international framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This aspires to demonstrate leadership in developing a new global agreement after 2012.

The European Union’s Influence on Copenhagen Policy

Europe is forming its post-Copenhagen policy, with a strong emphasis on engaging third countries and adopting a more “realistic” approach to climate diplomacy. However, fundamental differences exist between and within European countries on key issues such as the transition to a 30% EU emissions reduction target, the future of the Kyoto Protocol, the significance of a binding UN treaty, the appropriate mix of conditionality and incentives, and the role – if any – of border adjustment measures. (“European Climate Diplomacy after Copenhagen – E3G”). These policy differences stem from fundamental disagreements about strategic goals and perceptions of international politics. The EU will be unable to deploy the total weight of Community and Member State resources to support its collective interests unless new processes for closer strategic alignment are implemented. Closer alignment is built on three critical pillars: improved collective political intelligence, a clearer medium-term strategy for meeting the 2c goal, and stronger strategic conversations on climate change among senior European politicians and officials, including foreign ministries.

However, a few new perspectives emerged in the post-Copenhagen context, emphasising the EU’s alleged role as a ‘leadiator,’ a ‘leader-cum-mediator,’ and paying some attention to its bilateral relations with emerging economies. However, the multipolar dynamics of the Paris Agreement negotiations and implementation necessitate a thorough rethinking of scholarly analyses of the EU’s climate diplomacy. Importantly, these must include a Foreign Policy Analysis perspective beyond the alleged default multilateral preference.

Europe must handle four significant areas of Climate Diplomacy.

The EU appears to be as well prepared as other major powers to navigate these new waters. Still, it will need to be more adept at climate diplomacy than the “low ambition coalition” to achieve its ambitious, positive agenda.

The four primary areas of climate diplomacy which Europe must address include:

  • Strategy: How Europe defines and integrates its overall climate change goals with its broader strategic interests.
  • Political engagement with third countries: How Europe perceives and influences climate change discussions in other parts of the world.
  • Policy towards the international climate regime: How Europe creates effective international climate change cooperation mechanisms within and outside the UNFCCC.
  • Practical climate cooperation with third countries: How Europe organises itself to provide practical support for low-carbon, climate-resilient development worldwide.

European Green Deal Diplomacy

Rebuilding Europe’s climate diplomacy strategy must begin with an open discussion of European interests, which may necessitate internal realignment of those interests. Maintaining momentum will require the enthusiastic participation of new stakeholders in the internal European debate, including the national security community. Europe needs a more intelligent political strategy, backed up by new diplomatic machinery, to influence other countries and win their support for its policy positions. European countries should continue to share lessons learned on best practices in this area through the new European External Action Service, the Green Diplomacy Network, and other channels.

Green Deal Diplomacy

One of the novel aspects of the new European Commission’s proposal for a European Green Deal (EGD) is the establishment of a “Green Deal Diplomacy.” While this ambition has yet to be realised, the proposed new diplomacy does not emerge from a vacuum. The EU has been developing explicit climate and energy diplomacies since 2011 and 2015. As a result, it will be critical for EGD diplomacy to learn from previous attempts to formulate and implement EU external ambitions in policy areas related to the European Green Deal, both successes and failures. The purpose for the EU to be a “global leader” by paralleling internal ambitious transition efforts with a “stronger ‘green deal diplomacy’ focused on convincing and supporting others to take on their share of promoting more sustainable development has received comparatively less attention.

For climate diplomacy, regular and extensive conclusions on spreading ambitious climate action to various actors, emphasising instruments and policy synergies (e.g., energy, human rights, trade, security, development) have provided a relatively straightforward framework of external engagement. The goals of energy diplomacy are less clear, with actions primarily aimed at improving internal coordination among Member States and EU institutions and expanding on existing energy partnership/dialogue formats. As a result, transparent decisions on which concrete policy-area specific objectives and external instruments will be included in EGD diplomacy will be required to develop into a meaningful, comprehensive outreach strategy rather than a paper tiger of stated ambitions for various areas of external engagement.


When the EU redesigned its external climate strategy, it changed how it chose its main interlocutors and interacted with them in practice. The Union has shifted away from a singular focus on the multilateral arena and leadership-by-example to what is known as ‘multiple bilateralisms’ (MB), which is defined as a foreign policy “strategy that entails the maintenance of several bilateral relationships in parallel as a subset of a multilateral negotiation setting.” With this shift, the EU abandoned its efforts to create a global climate regime that mirrored its regional and adopted a more pragmatic approach, acknowledging that it is part of a broader and malleable global context in which the – cooperative and confrontational – relations between major emitters shape multilateral climate policies decisively. The key features of the redesigned EU climate diplomacy are greater flexibility and more significant investment in the EU’s multiple bilateral relationships with other major emitters in parallel with the ongoing UN climate regime negotiations.




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Writer by Eric Muhia, International Studies and Diplomacy Graduate Student

13 April 2022, Kenya

Photo by Frederic Köberl

Category: Diplomacy

Reference: EM13042022D   

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