How Can States Exercise International Environmental Leadership?

United Nations Climate Change Conferences, such as the upcoming COP 26 Summit in Glasgow, represent an opportunity for states to exercise international environmental leadership. Leadership consists of states’ attempts to shape the behavioral patterns of their counterparts. At Glasgow, prospective leaders such as the UK, the US, and the EU will compete to exert maximal influence over the outcome of the summit.

According to one cynical view of state behavior – the ‘regulatory politics’ perspective – states exercise environmental leadership with the intent of internationalizing their domestic environmental policies. This approach argues that states have an incentive to internationalize their own preferred method of combatting climate change, as this reduces the need for costly and rapid regulatory change. In doing so, they preserve their international economic competitiveness. Thus, international environmental leaders are not disinterested, acting in the general interest to find the most efficient means of addressing the climate crisis, but rather act with an eye to their own domestic economic interests. For example, observers have argued that the EU used its international environmental leadership role to shape the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB) of 2000 in line with its own existing biosafety regulations, particularly with regard to the CPB’s precautionary orientation.

It is true that major international actors may attempt to exploit their leadership position to internationalize their domestic regulations. However, effective international environmental leaders engage in coalition building. In this respect, effective leaders are, in fact, ‘leadiators’ – they exhibit moderate, bridge-building behavior rather than imposing their preferences on others.

This is best evidenced by the EU’s change in fortunes as an international environmental leader following the 2009 Copenhagen Summit. Until the limitations of its approach were brutally exposed at COP 15, the EU typically pushed other states to adopt binding carbon emissions targets. Instead of attempting to resolve the international deadlock, it would simply demand that other states adopt the methods that it had pioneered. For example, in March 2007, the EU publicly declared its ambition to cut its carbon emissions by 20% compared to 1990 levels by 2020. This was an attempt to frame the Copenhagen agenda. Consequently, at Copenhagen, the EU attempted to force other states to adopt similar mandatory emissions targets.

However, this attempt to export mandatory emissions targets as a strategy for addressing climate change failed to win any major followership. The EU’s approach was rejected by the US and most developing countries. As a result, the EU wielded little influence at the summit. Most notably, it was absent from the last-minute negotiations that forged the Copenhagen Accord, whose emphasis on a pledge and review approach ultimately laid the basis for the 2015 Paris Agreement. Thus, the EU’s leadership strategy of internationalizing its climate regulations left it isolated and impotent at Copenhagen. The US, by contrast, exercised effective problem-solving and entrepreneurial leadership at Copenhagen by building a coalition around the novel pledge and review system. Effective leadership thus requires states to moderate their preferences and engage in coalition building. A self-interested leadership strategy based on the export of specific domestic regulations, by contrast, is likely to generate resistance and preclude followership.

Recognizing its failure at Copenhagen, the EU has since adopted a more pragmatic leadership strategy. Ahead of the 2015 Paris Conference, the EU adopted a bridge-building approach by engaging with developing countries through the Cartagena Dialogue for Progressive Action. This enabled the EU to form a ‘high ambition coalition, incorporating both developed and developing countries, ahead of Paris. In doing so, the EU had to make compromises to satisfy developing countries. For example, it dropped its demand for specific guidelines on countries’ reporting commitments. Thus, the EU’s leadership strategy has come to entail problem-solving and compromise, rather than the imposition of its environmental regulations on others.

Overall, then, as COP 26 approaches, states hopeful of exerting a leadership role should resist the temptation to attempt to export their domestic environmental regulations or their own approach to combatting climate change. This strategy can undermine leaders’ influence by alienating prospective followers. As the EU learned after its failure to impose binding emissions targets on other states at Copenhagen, to exercise effective leadership, states must be willing to engage in compromise and coalition building.


Joss Harrison