Climate change is one of the most serious challenges facing humankind. The European Union is working to promote ambitious global action to limit climate change through the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), in other international fora and through its bilateral relations with third countries.
The global average temperature has risen almost 0.8°C since the second half of the 19th century, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which brings together hundreds of scientific experts on climate change from across the world. The IPCC is more than 90% certain that human activities which release greenhouse gases are having a net warming effect on the atmosphere. The first decade of the 21st century was the warmest since reliable records began in 1880.
The international community has recognised the scientific evidence that global warming needs to be held below 2°C (3.6°F) compared to the temperature in pre-industrial times in order to prevent climate change from reaching dangerous proportions. However, international action taken to date is not sufficient to prevent this ceiling from being exceeded.
Scientific evidence indicates that a temperature rise of more than 2°C could have irreversible and potentially catastrophic environmental consequences with high costs in human and economic terms.
The EU is successfully reducing its emissions of greenhouse gases, but worldwide emissions are continuing to grow. Global energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas, reach new record levels each year. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing annually and is at its highest level for 650,000 years, scientific research shows.
The Kyoto Protocol, agreed in 1997 by countries participating in the UNFCCC, has taken a first step towards addressing these trends. The world's only legally binding treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it requires action only by developed countries, however.
Under Kyoto's first commitment period, from 2008 to 2012, developed countries must reduce their emissions by an average of 5% below 1990 levels by 2012. The 15 countries that were EU Member States at the time that Kyoto was agreed committed to an 8% cut and are on track to achieve this by a comfortable margin.
Besides not requiring action from developing countries, the Protocol's impact is further limited by the fact that it was never ratified by the United States, and Canada has since pulled out.
By 2020 nearly two-thirds of the world's emissions will come from developing countries, it is projected. The EU has long argued that Kyoto should be succeeded by a global legal framework that requires action not only from all developed countries, which must continue to lead, but also from the major emerging economies in the developing world.
A first attempt to agree a global climate regime failed in 2009. In 2011, however, it was agreed to launch negotiations on a global legal framework applicable to all countries. The new framework is to be adopted by 2015 and to enter force in 2020. The EU wants a new Protocol that is ambitious, comprehensive and legally binding.
Until 2020, the international climate regime will comprise – on top of the existing provisions of the UNFCCC - new rules, institutions and commitments that have resulted from the UN climate conferences held in Copenhagen (2009), Cancún (2010), Durban (2011) and Doha (2012). These commitments include voluntary emission pledges for 2020 that have been made by more than 90 countries to date, as well as commitments by developed countries to provide financial support to help developing countries adapt to climate change and limit their emissions.
In addition, a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol will run from 2013 until 2020 when the global agreement enters into force. The EU is participating in the second period but several major emitters in the developed world are not, so Kyoto will cover only about 14% of global emissions.
Work is also under way at international level to raise the ambition level of global action before 2020 by identifying further actions that can be taken to reduce emissions further. This work covers all countries, whether they are part of the second Kyoto period or not.
The fight against climate change is an important issue in the EU's bilateral relations with other countries in the developed and developing worlds alike.
As the world's biggest provider of official development assistance (ODA), responsible for more than half of global ODA, the EU is the largest contributor of climate finance to help developing countries adapt to climate change and develop on a low-emission path.
In the fight against climate change the EU is leading by example through its domestic action.
EU leaders - recognising the benefits in terms of stimulating innovation, economic growth and jobs – have committed the EU to becoming a highly energy-efficient, low-emission economy. Binding legislation has been put in place to cut emissions to 20% below 1990 levels by 2020, and measures recently adopted or proposed mean reductions are likely to exceed this target. The EU is offering to step up its 2020 reduction target to 30% if other major economies commit to take on their fair share of global action.
In the longer term, the EU is committed to cutting its emissions by 80-95% below 1990 levels by 2050 as part of the effort required from the developed world as a whole. The European Commission has published a roadmap that charts a cost-effective pathway for making the necessary transition to a competitive, low carbon European economy by mid-century.