Walking the talk: Leveraging the Green Deal to boost climate ambition through EU external action

Walking the talk: Leveraging the Green Deal to boost climate ambition through EU external action

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The publication at the end of last year of the European Commission proposal for a ‘Green Deal’ 1 was touted as Europe’s ‘Man on the Moon’ moment, putting forward an agenda for deep transformations towards sustainability within the EU and internationally. With the first big step having been taken, it is now essential to ensure that this agenda is translated into equally ambitious action.

Internationally, current climate action pledged by governments in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement would likely lead to a 3.2°C global temperature 2 increase by the end of this century, if the NDCs are fully implemented. This falls ways short of the Agreement’s explicit objective to stay below 2°C and strive for a maximum 1.5°C temperature increase. The EU, amidst heated negotiations at the UN climate conference COP25 in Madrid in December 2019, announced its domestic agreement to carbon neutrality by 2050 (albeit with special provisions for Poland). It also pledged to update its NDC in 2020, considering a substantial increase in ambition, from 40% to 50%-55% GHG emissions reduction by 2030 relative to 1990 levels.

Overall, however, the UNFCCC process has failed to secure a requirement for all countries to increase their ambition by 2020. So far, mostly small and developing countries, covering approximately 15% of global GHG emissions 3 , have pledged to do so. Yet, all countries need to ratchet up their NDCs. In the case of developing countries, including large emerging economies, the level of ambition that can be achieved in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow will be highly dependent on international support and cooperation. It will be required to back and boost what will presumably be mostly conditional NDC pledges.

In October 2019, ETTG released a policy brief that highlighted the EU’s potential to boost global climate action through external action and development cooperation 4. It made proposals, including more generous financing, also to support adaptation and resilience in highly vulnerable developing countries, and an explicit ‘brown list’ of activities that should no longer be funded by aid. Recognizing this potential already resonates in the Green Deal, as well as in the EU’s resolve to prefer no outcome over watered-down ’flexible‘ rules for market mechanisms at COP25 in Madrid. These are encouraging signals for the way ahead, and for a much needed resumption of EU leadership in multilateral climate governance. 

The ETTG’s key messages remain valid, however, even in this changing context.

Crucially, the Green Deal avoids a reference to limiting global warming to a maximum of 1.5°C. Yet, keeping this objective at least within reach, and limiting adverse impacts of climate change to the extent possible, will be paramount to sustainable development and even peace and security. Hence, all external action and development cooperation should aim for 1.5°C-compatibility. This requires coherence and coordination across levels of governance and policy sectors that adequately accounts for the interlinkages between development and climate action and the imperative of just transitions. As 1.5°C-compatibility invariably differs in different country contexts, it will need to be defined jointly with partners.

Moreover, as the EU strives for climate neutrality at home, with improved product standards and the potential imposition of a carbon border adjustment tax and import product certifications, it also needs to consider the impact on development partners 5 and how they could be supported in their respective low-carbon transitions. 

Not least, while the Green Deal tends to focus on climate change mitigation, the growing urgency to adapt to climate change impacts must not be ignored. This implies a growing need for more finance for adaptation, in particular in the most vulnerable regions, especially Africa, and in the agricultural sector 6.

Guaranteed support to the conditional element of NDCs is likely to be a key element that could help to encourage ambition in the updated NDCs 7 of developing countries. As the largest providers of development assistance, the EU and its Member States – with a share of 57% of global ODA in 2018 8– hold considerable leverage to boost climate action through climate-compatible development cooperation. As the new Commission is still developing its programmes, now is the time to make supporting NDCs a key element of EU external action. In that regard, any cuts in the budget for 2021-2027 of the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) would jeopardize a meaningful implementation of the Green Deal 9 from the outset, both domestically and internationally. Indeed, a large share of budget allocation to climate action and a complete climate-proofing of the budget will be essential to bring the Green Deal to life.

Either way, the year 2020 will witness a series of key moments that will determine the EU’s ability to walk the Green Deal talk. How the EU defines the Deal’s implementation and what agreements it manages to negotiate internationally will be deal-makers or breakers for global climate action. Domestically, the European Climate Law, scheduled for adoption in March, the revision of the Common Agricultural Policy (2021-27), and the Renewed Finance Strategy later this year, together with the Green Deal Investment Plan, will be key elements for the envisaged pathway towards high-ambition alignment and adequate implementation. Externally, the Comprehensive Strategy with Africa and the EU-AU Summit, the EU-China Summit, as well as the biodiversity COP hosted by China, will provide critical moments for the EU to demonstrate credible leadership and secure enhanced global ambition in dealing with climate change 10 in the run up to COP26 in Glasgow in November.

Against this backdrop key questions to leverage the Green Deal internationally include:

  • How can the Green Deal be implemented in a way that supports ambitious climate action beyond the EU’s borders?
  • What would increased standards and carbon tariffs on imports imply for the EU’s trade partners, especially in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, and how can adverse impacts for development be avoided?
  • What does it mean for development agencies to take climate seriously, both in terms of mitigation and adaptation, and how could 1.5°C-compatibility of development cooperation be achieved in practice?
  • What new action must developing countries take, to increase their own climate ambition, but also to adjust to a new policy environment in the EU and in other important trade, investment and migration partners?

We will address these key questions and more during the ETTG roundtable event ’How to walk the Green Deal talk in EU external cooperation? Harnessing development cooperation to foster European climate leadership‘ on 18th March in Brussels.

Join the debate!


1 European Commission, The European Green Deal, December 2019

2 UN Environment, Emissions Gap Report 2019, Global progress report on climate action

3 Climate watch, 2020 NDC Tracker

4 Iacobuta, G., Di Ciommo, M., Keijzer, N., Knaepen, H., Vallejo L., Bauer S., 2019, “Harnessing EU external cooperation to boost ambitious and coherent climate action” ETTG Policy Brief, Brussels, European Think Tanks Group.

 5 Brandi, C., 2019, “A European border carbon tax – promises and pitfalls of trade measures as a leverage for climate protection”, DIE Blog

6 Tietjen, B., Rampa F., and Knaepen, H., 2019, “Finance to adapt: Making climate funding work for agriculture at the local level, Maastricht, ECDPM paper

7 Maxwell, S., 2020 “How to unlock the Glasgow COP”, Blog

8 European Commission, Press release, April 2019, “Europe remains the world’s biggest development donor – €74.4 billion in 2018”

9 Keijzer, N. and Erforth, B., 2020, “EU budget summit. Is the EU risking another “NO DEAL”?”, DIE, The Current Column 

10 Bianchi, M. and Menga, A., 2020, “Climate action in the era of the European Green New Deal”, ETTG Blog

Authors: Steffen Bauer (Senior Researcher and Head of Klimalog), Gabriela Iacobuta (Researcher) The German Development Institute (DIE). 

Image courtesy of Stephen Bowler via Flicker.

The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of European Think Tanks Group.



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