chapter  4
16 Pages

The European Parliament and climate change: From symbolism to heroism and back again


The European Parliament (EP) has historically had limited scope to shape the EU’s climate change policy as the lead has traditionally been taken by the Commission and Council. The Parliament has a circumscribed de jure role in international environmental politics: under Article 218 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union it has a right to be consulted by the Council and in some circumstances may offer its formal assent to international agreements to which the EU is party. But the EP has limited ability to shape negotiations. Consequently, although the EP has sent delegations to international events such as the regular Conference of Parties (COP) meetings on climate change and issued reports and resolutions for the attention of the other institutions,2 its policy impact has been limited, a fact refl ected in the literature on the EU and climate change where the EP is barely mentioned and then only in passing (e.g. Wettestad 2005; Schreurs and Tibergien 2007; Oberthür and Roche-Kelly 2008). Thus, while the EP is keen to present itself as a leader within EU environmental politics more generally, it has, until recently, been a bystander within the specifi c fi eld of climate change. However, the concurrence of its increased powers in the form of codecision, together with the development of the EU’s Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) and the parallel package of legislation, offered the Parliament a unique opportunity to shape the future direction and ambition of EU climate change policy. The EP has typically sought to exercise cognitive and entrepreneurial leadership but its leadership style has typically been symbolic (Hayward 2008): it has sought to shape policy through its debates and non-legislative resolutions, which allow it to air ideas but do little to alter the substance of policy or to shape the structure of incentives faced by the key policy actors. However, the EP’s increased institutional power opened a window of opportunity for it to shift from this rhetorical approach to a more heroic style as it sought to tighten and strengthen the climate change and energy package that was adopted by the EP and Council in late 2008. Yet, the Parliament found itself the victim of events beyond its control, and its ability to move the

legislation towards its own preferences was circumscribed. The EP therefore fell back into its traditional role of offering symbolic leadership through the Temporary Committee on Climate Change, which provided it with a platform for making policy pronouncements but had no legislative force. Below, fi rst we outline the EP’s role as an environmental actor, before evaluating its attempts to exercise leadership over time through amending key legislative proposals and establishing the Temporary Committee on Climate Change. We then briefl y discuss what this case study tells us about the EP’s position on ecological modernisation and whether climate change has presented the Parliament with an opportunity to exercise leadership on the international stage.