The Copenhagen climate summit was seen as a set-back for the eu. It was left out of the final meeting between the usa and major developing countries which lead to the Copenhagen Accord, and had to accept a deal that fell below its expectations.

Due to the impact of the economic crisis, the eu’s current target of a unilateral 20 % reduction is no longer as impressive as it seemed in 2007–2008; this is undermining the eu’s claim to leadership. In order to match the higher pledges of Japan, Australia and the us, as well as shoulder its fair share of the industrialized countries’ aggregate 30 % reduction, the eu would have to pledge a 35 % reduction.

The eu’s practise of attaching conditionalities to its higher target gives it very little leverage. However, there might be a case for the eu to move unilaterally to a 30 % reduction in order to accelerate the decarbonisation of its economy and capture new growth markets. 

Doing so could support stronger policy development in other countries such as Australia and Japan, and help rebuild trust among developing countries. But on its own it would be unlikely to have a substantial impact on the position of the other big players—the usa, China, India, and Brazil.

The incoherence of the eu’s support of a “singe legal outcome” from the Copenhagen summit, based on the elements of the Kyoto Protocol, was a major cause for its isolation. The us remains domestically unable to commit to this type of a ratifiable treaty while developing countries are not yet ready to commit to absolute targets.

A return to a two-track approach, involving the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol and the negotiation of a new instrument for the usa and major developing countries, may be a more politically and practically feasible approach, while retaining the goal of working towards a legally binding instrument for all key participants over time.