Who governs the environmental policy in the EU? A study of the process towards a common climate target

The agreement in the Environment Council of March 1997 came as a surprise to most observers and the target was immediately regarded as a radical contribution to the international negotiation process. The Council lists up a number of national circumstances that have been taken into account when deciding on the distribution of responsibilities for the March 1997 target. The final distribution was however a political decision, rather than a result of a mechanical formula (Ringius, 1997, p. 25). When looking at the final burden-sharing, it does to some extent resemble the initial national targets of the member-states. One can therefore argue that it looks as if a pledge and review round has taken place. This dissertation will however argue that the criteria listed by the Council are important, as they establish the principle of burden-sharing as a way to combat climate change.

Another important aspect with the decision was that some of the member-states through the negotiations made stronger efforts to combat climate change than they otherwise would have done, and that it ensured that all the member-states became parties to the Convention. Finally, the decision was an important one because it implied that the setting of climate targets has become a European policy area.

Why did the EU agree on a common climate target?

The reason why the member-states finally agreed to this transfer of competence and sovereignty is to be found in the interest of the major actors in the policy area, which in the case of setting a common climate target primarily have been the Commission and the Council. Both the ‘green’ forces, and those who usually are most occupied with economical considerations, had a common interest in setting a common EU target. This dissertation will claim that the EU never would have agreed on a 15% reduction target simply for environmental reasons as the economic interests still are dominant in the union (Collier, 1997).

The close cooperation and the exchange of information and arguments between the member-states, did however create an internal climate which facilitated the process of finding a common target. The process itself has hence contributed to the final result.

The success of agreeing on a common climate target must also be understood in the light of the international process in this policy-area. The UN negotiations did to a large extent set the timetable for the internal development in the EU. External factors such as Japan’s and US’ reluctance to commit themselves to an ambitious climate policy, are also important in explaining why the EU decided to take a leadership role in the international climate negotiations.

This dissertation has concentrated on the role of the Commission and the Council. To get a full understanding of the process, it is necessary to look at the role of other actors as well. The conclusions presented are hence not proposed as the final and definitive explanations. Rather it is a part of a larger process of explaining, describing and understanding why the EU decided to set a common reduction target.

A review of the theoretical approaches

The March 1997 agreement can not be explained by a pure neo-functionalistic approach. The neo-functionalist approach helps to locate climate policy within the general dynamics of task expansion in the Community. Some actors saw the development of a common climate policy as a logical extension of the Community’s competence in environmental policy.

Another ‘mechanical’ reason for setting a common climate target was that other policy areas in the community such as transport and energy, highly influence the emissions of CO2. In this respect, spill-over from other policy sectors paved the way for a common climate policy.

The neo-functionalist approach does however fail to explain the form and the content of the final agreement (Golub, 1996, p.702). Nor it is particularly useful when trying to understand the long and intensive negotiation process in the Council leading up to the final decision of March 1997. As Golub (1997, p. 19) argues: ‘Functionalism tells us why there might be something to sign, perhaps even what might be signed, but bargaining tells us what interest were taken into negotiations and why states signed the specific environmental proposal’.

The inter-governmentalist approach is thus superior in order to understand the final negotiation and bargaining, but has also important gaps and weaknesses. The first initiatives from the Commission to put the issue of climate change on the political agenda in the EC does not fit in with this theory. This dissertation will therefore argue that a comprehensive approach is necessary when examining the development towards a common climate target in the EU. The European Union is both a supranational entity and an inter-governmental system. The respective importance of the two elements varies at different stages in the policy making process (Hertier et. al, 1996).

At the first stage of the policy-making process, the supranational Commission has important powers in having monopoly on initiating and formulating policies (Matlary, 1993). It is also important in establishing the scientific or factual basis for policy-making. The member-states attempt to influence the Commission in the initial process in order to ensure policies that are in accordance with their own policy regime (Hertiere et. Al, 1996 and Majone 1993). It is however the Commission that has the final word in deciding the content and form of any proposal presented to the Council. The Commission can also withdraw a proposal at any stage in the process.

The last step in a policy-making process is the final decision in the Council, which in some ways is comparable to the making of an international treaty involving negotiations between governments behind closed doors (Wagner, 1997). Once decisions are made and/or legislation is adopted, the similarity diminishes, as EC legislation becomes directly applicable in the member-states. EC legislation is even superior to national legislation.

For a decision to be reached it must have the consent of the Commission and a necessary majority in the Council. The framework of environmental policy-making in the EC is hence a system of governance operating on the principle of concurrent majorities among leading actors (Weale, 1996). The result is a rule-making process that has to secure agreement from many and different actors. This often leads to what Scharpf (1995) has termed a ‘joint decision’ trap where optimal decisions are not reached. However, in the area of climate policy the EC has, to the surprise of many close observers, managed to reach a common decision (Ringius, 1997, p. 6). Following Scharpf (1995), agreements are possible when the major actors in the EC, in particular the member-states and the Commission, have strong interests in finding a common solution.

As concluded earlier, this was the situation in the case of setting a common climate target for the member-states in the European Union. Even though there were disagreements concerning how ambitious the common target should be, the main actors wanted a solution. The Commission was an early proponent for a common target, followed by a majority of the member-states that for various reasons wanted to reach such an agreement.

This review has shown that EU environmental policy-making is best understood by looking at the union as both a supranational and an inter-governmental organisation. To capture the reality of the development of a common climate target, a comprehensive approach is needed.


Gerhardsen, Marte, 1998. Who governs the environmental policy in the EU? A study of the process towards a common climate target. Policy Note 1998:04. CICERO, Oslo, Norway.

Flere detaljer

  • Språk: Engelsk
  • Kategori: CICERO Policy Notes
  • Tittel: Who governs the environmental policy in the EU? A study of the process towards a common climate target
  • Rapport nummer: Policy Note 1998:04
  • Utgiver: CICERO
  • By, land: Oslo, Norway


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Sist oppdatert: 02.01.06


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  • Gerhardsen, Marte
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