Is there a role for environmental policy in establishing the EU as a relevant global actor?

The environment became one of the main topics in the 21st century with only a few left to believe that climate change and global warming exist only in theory, and much more claiming the topic is being addressed too late. For more than 40 years, since the 1972 Paris Summit of leaders, the European Union (EU) is trying to tackle the raising issues through its environmental policy. On this first Summit, the development of Environmental Action Programs (EAP) was initiated. Today, the 7th EAP identify areas of priority to be addressed until 2020 and outlines goals until 2050. As one of the most politically and economically authoritative organizations currently existing, many questions if the EU will become one of the main global actors in the environmental area.

Although it could be debated if an organization with the power dispersed among 28 Member States and the bodies of the EU can be a relevant global actor, the environmental policy consistently proves that shared decision-making powers do not come in the way of progressive common policies, especially those dealing with climate change. The EU showed its power back in 2001 when the USA decided not to ratify the Kyoto protocol which further specified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The EU strongly criticized this move and ratified the Protocol the following year, successfully lobbying for Russia and Japan to do the same. It implemented the obligations under a shared ”bubble” rule – which allowed parties to fulfill their commitment together – to reduce target of 8 % of CO2 emissions by 2012. This was redistributed among 15 states which were the members of the EU at the time of the adoption of the Protocol in 1997. They managed to decline the emissions by 12.2 % compared to base-year (1990) levels. The EU’s key means of achieving Protocol objectives came into force in 2005 when the EU became a pioneer in emissions trading by setting up the first supranational Emissions Trading System (ETS) which now operates in 31 countries and combats climate change and industrial greenhouse gas emissions cost-effectively.

Today, the EU is a party to more than fifty environmental treaties. With such influence, both on regional and global environmental policy, it often plays an essential role in creating agendas and advocating for innovative and more flexible environmental standards. The EU also uses its high environmental regulations to export standards via market as foreign countries and companies must meet these in order to access the European market. In addition, the European Environment Agency (EEA), established in 1990, includes members of the European Free Trade Agreement and Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland, and Turkey, while Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have applied jointly for membership and  Kosovo  remains a cooperating  country.

On the other side, the EU remains far from reaching 2020 and 2050 targets relating to combating biodiversity loss and restoring ecosystem services. At the same time, the common agriculture and fisheries policies are becoming a great financial burden. The EU fights between reconciling the competitive economic growth with the objectives of sustainability and environmental protection. It is yet to see how the EU will tackle the new issues that are about to raise after BREXIT. The Union will have to work strategically and encourage cooperation among a variety of sectors and, especially, try to include the new member states and candidate countries in creating and implementing new environmental policies. But, considering all the positive effects its policies have on environment globally, the EU future as a leading global actor in terms of environmental policy seems bright.



  1. The European Union as a Leader in International Climate Change Politics Rüdiger Wurzel, James Connelly, School of Human Sciences and Communication James Connelly
  2. Implications of EU Enlargement on the EU Greenhouse Gas ‘Bubble’ and Internal Burden Sharing Axel Michaelowa, Regina Betz
  3. EU Environmental Policy  Making  and Implementation:   Changing Processes and Mixed Outcomes Henrik  Selin

Written by: Ivana Budimir

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