(User echiner1, Flickr Commons) With the end of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Peru last Friday, climate change is once again rising on the international agenda. After the passage of a weak global warming accord in Peru, the world’s countries are scheduled to decide on a more comprehensive global climate agreement at the December 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. But the negotiations promise to be extremely complex, and reaching an agreement will require consensus. The multifaceted nature of climate change, an issue that affects all societies but often in different ways, will make for an intricate set of deliberations. In such negotiations, actors can exert an impact by combining a traditional leadership role with that of a mediator between and among potential negotiating partners. Such a hybrid “leadiator” will be critical to building bridges both in Paris and in the negotiations leading up to the conference.

The European Union (EU) has assumed a leadiator role in recent climate deals, both leading in emissions-reduction initiatives and mediating with potential allies through engagement strategies as a credible partner. But changing global power structures and shifting international alliances threaten the sustainability of the EU’s leadiator role. The September 2014 New York climate summit hosted by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon as well as the Lima climate conference that concluded last Friday have managed to achieve progress on individual issues and set the stage for an overall agreement in Paris. But beyond the complexity of reaching a negotiated deal, the Paris conference will serve as a referendum on both the EU’s leadiator status and, by extension, the future of global action on climate change.

A Paris agreement will have to include compromises on a range of issues—first of all, the legal form that countries’ obligations to uphold it will take. Whereas the 1997 Kyoto Protocol included legal obligations for industrialized countries to reduce their emissions, the mitigation commitments of the Paris agreement will have the same form (but not content) for all countries. This will most likely mean that its commitments will be less binding than those of the Kyoto Protocol. Second, the agreement will have to consider the content of the mitigation commitments. By March 2015, countries shall put forward the contribution that they intend to commit to in a Paris agreement. The EU has already committed to a reduction target of 40 percent by 2030. The United States intends to reduce its emissions by 26 to 28 percent below its 2005 level in 2025, while China intends to reach peak CO2 emissions around 2030. Third, Paris must discuss adaptation to climate change in developing countries, including the possibility of receiving compensation for loss and damage caused by climate change. Fourth, the conference will have to determine the magnitude and governance of the finance that industrialized countries will be required to provide for mitigation and adaptation in developing countries.

Although many of these issues have historically pitted developed countries against developing ones, new alliances have recently emerged that crisscross this divide. Such alliances have opened up space for the EU to influence the Paris negotiations. Previously, the creation of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol represented the apex of EU global climate leadership, which it exerted by repeatedly taking initiatives to move negotiating processes forward and by unilaterally setting standards and examples on climate regulation. In the years following, the EU became a key actor in the process of getting the protocol ratified, a position of leadership that was largely undisputed due to the fact that the United States had stepped back from the process by not itself ratifying the agreement.

The 2009 Copenhagen climate meeting is widely considered to have been a diplomatic failure for the EU—not least by the EU itself. The EU found itself marginalized in the final phases of the conference, meaning that the end result was a product of negotiations between the United States and China—the latter as the leader of BASIC, a coalition of emerging powers consisting of China, Brazil, India, and South Africa. Several explanations for the fiasco have been advanced. Some scholars maintain that the EU’s promises before the conference were not ambitious enough. Others claim that EU’s objectives were unrealistic, as they failed to take into account changes in global power constellations. Developing states accused the EU of wanting to “kill the Kyoto Protocol” by demanding reductions from Third World states as well.

Copenhagen was a traumatic experience for the EU, and encouraged it to reconsider its climate negotiation strategies. As a result, the EU adopted a greater focus on pragmatism. By meetings in Cancun in 2010 and Durban in 2011, it appeared to have made a partial recovery. In Durban, the EU was instrumental in producing an agreement that both prolonged the Kyoto Protocol and initiated a new process with the aim of creating a legally binding agreement by 2020. It also created a coalition with vulnerable island states and countries in Africa to put pressure on major emitters. At the same time, its promise to continue the Kyoto Protocol was welcomed by developing countries. The post-Copenhagen EU also displayed a more realistic grasp of interstate politics by attempting to anchor its proposals in the United States, China, and India.

In the upcoming Paris negotiations, the EU’s strength will partly depend on whether it is able to maintain both coherence and credibility. Internal disagreements, which have already emerged during this fall’s pre-negotiations, demonstrate a current lack of coherence. Many EU member states wanted the overall goals of the alliance to be less ambitious, non-binding, and depending upon other actors’commitments. Although member states eventually agreed to reduce emissions by 40 percent, improving energy efficiency by 27 percent, and increasing renewable energy’s share of total EU energy consumption by 27 percent (all targets by 2030), the compromise reflected these initial differences of opinion. The result is a deal that appears less ambitious than previous EU reduction and usage targets. There are also doubts about the willingness of member states to finance mitigation and adaptation in developing countries. This perception of disunity will also decrease the EU’s credibility in negotiations. If the EU is seen as an unreliable partner that cannot be trusted to live up to its promises, or if it enters global negotiations with goals that are seen as cautious rather than radical, its role as a leader and vanguard of the climate negotiation process may be jeopardized.

The EU’s role in Paris will also hinge upon the strategy it employs. In recent climate change negotiations, the alliance has arguably forgone a strategy of normatively guided and unilateral leadership. Rather than solely acting as a model to other states, it has instead become a leadiator. The EU’s efforts to forge new alliances with African, Latin American, and small island states along with its deliberate attempts to find acceptable, middle-ground solutions with other major emitters demonstrate this new strategy.

At the same time, the outcome of the Paris negotiations will primarily be determined by existing power constellations and by the positions of other major actors. The EU’s relative negotiating power has diminished as other states’ shares of global greenhouse gas emissions have increased. China and India have joined the United States as veto powers with the ability to derail any agreement they dislike. Regardless of President Obama’s own ambitions, the United States’ ability to make concessions will largely depend upon whether a Republican-dominated Congress skeptical of climate change will block climate action and the ratification of an agreement. China and India are still reluctant to make commitments that may damage their own economic growth, arguing that today’s climate threats are the result of past sins committed by Western powers as they developed. Still, both countries remain unwilling to go against the expressed ambitions of their developing country partners. Neither wishes to be blamed for stopping an agreement that could have saved vulnerable island states from disappearing beneath rising sea levels.

Given the highly visible consequences of global climate change and pressure from both vulnerable states and civil society, an agreement at the Paris conference seems likely. The shape that agreement will take, however, is difficult to foresee. The EU has the precedent, power, and strategy to make an impact for the better. But whether it will do so depends on whether it can build upon its forged alliance with Latin American, African, and island states, and whether these alliances will be enough to spur the United States, China, and India to action. In order to achieve its ends in Paris, the EU must continue to act as a leadiator in climate negotiations, guided by ambitious goals while taking into account the often disappointing realities of bargaining power situations. The environmental future of the globe might well depend on its success.