The current state of play: not much appetite for climate action
On 22 January, the European Commission presented its proposals for 2030 climate and energy framework including a new reduction target for domestic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of 40% compared to 1990, an EU-wide target for renewable energy of at least 27%, a new governance system and a set of new indicators to ensure a competitive and secure energy system. They also proposed a “market stability reserve” for the failing EU emissions trading scheme (only starting in 2021) as well as minimum principles for shale gas. A decision on renewed ambitions for energy efficiency has been delayed.
The influential industry lobby pushed hard to water down any ambition and successfully spread the narrative that, in the aftermath of the economic crisis, European leaders have to put a brake on climate action. As a result – and while it could even have been worse – the Commission’s proposals are far from being adequate to tackle the global climate crisis. There are an increasing number of EU leaders, including Commission President Barroso, that want to weaken their commitment to renewables and instead plead for a “low carbon technology mix” including nuclear and CCS (i.e. business as usual in line with the interests of conventional industries).
The lack of ambition was countered by the European Parliament’s own initiative report, adopted on 5 February, that expressed its concern with the Commission’s “short-sighted and unambitious” proposals and called instead for a set of three binding climate and energy targets for 2030: at least 40% emission reduction, at least 30% of total final energy consumption from renewable energy sources (implemented by means of individual national targets) and an energy efficiency target of 40%. Even though this report is non-binding, it sends a clear message to the Member States to increase the ambition of the 2030 climate and energy framework.
Some Member States voiced their positions in the Commission's stakeholder consultation last year and started to form coalitions such as the Green Growth Group. Particularly, the UK has been very active in building support for its preferred option, the so-called technology neutral one-target only approach. They claim that instead of expensive renewables support schemes a single 2030 target for emissions reduction would allow for a more cost effective decarbonisation in line with market principles. However, this falls short of the fact that there is no level playing field in the European energy market in order to ensure strong growth of renewables and investments in energy savings. The lack of a strong carbon price signal from the current design of the EU’s Emissions Trading System further highlights the flaws of a decarbonisation strategy that merely relies on an emissions reduction target.
EU leaders under time pressure
The EU heads of state and government will discuss the European Commission’s proposals for the 2030 climate and energy framework in the end of March. Europe is under a lot of time pressure to put its post-2020 mitigation commitments on the table of the international climate negotiations. EU leaders should be ready for the “Ban Ki-moon Summit” in the end of September. The credibility of the self-proclaimed climate leader is at stake, as the EU has been the most vocal actor in demanding from other parties to “do their homework” in the run-up to the 2015 Climate Summit (COP21) in Paris, where a global climate deal shall be struck. In particular, France is concerned about its upcoming COP Presidency and pushes hard for an agreement on a GHG target in March.
On the other hand, rumours are spread that Member States are not ready yet to reach an agreement in March. The Polish government plays a major role in this delaying tactic in order to downplay expectations. Such a delay puts the EU’s strategy in the international climate negotiations at risk, as other parties are likely to follow the European pace and might not table their contributions in time. A lack of an agreement in March is further complicated by the upcoming European elections in May, as this would result in even bigger delays until the new Parliament and Commission is in place. A decision could then be postponed until October.
Another factor that plays into the timing of a 2030 agreement is that personal legacies are at stake. EU Council President van Rompuy and EU Commission President Barroso would like to lay the foundation for the 2030 climate and energy package before they will leave their mandates in the course of this year. On the contrary, former “Climate Chancellor” Merkel does not raise much political leverage for an ambitious 2030 climate and energy deal. While the German government proved its successful “convincing powers” in Brussels when undermining an agreement on EU car emissions last year, the upcoming 2030 decision has not stirred – as of yet – any comparable efforts on behalf of the German government in favour of a European Energy Transition. This is very unfortunate and hard to understand given the fact that the European policy framework will be a decisive factor for the successful implementation of the German Energiewende.
Better no deal than a poor deal?
So what are the global implications of the possible scenarios under the EU’s 2030 climate and energy framework? One could claim that EU emissions only play a small and decreasing role in overall global emissions and that, consequently, the EU’s 2030 decisions would not matter too much for the global temperature increase. While this line of argument is often brought forward in order to roll back EU climate ambition, it falls short of the fact that the EU remains the global standard setter for climate policies. The EU’s leadership role has been crucial for leveraging political traction with others and for ensuring positive outcomes and raising ambition in the international climate negotiations. The world is watching the EU’s next steps closely. An ambitious 2030 climate and energy framework will be crucial in creating momentum for a global climate deal in 2015.
At the same time, a 2030 agreement with a low level of ambition will raise serious questions about the credibility of the self-proclaimed EU climate leadership and might result in a backward spiral of bottom-up pledges. The right level of ambition should be assessed against the EU’s long-term commitment to keep temperature rise below 2°C which translates into an emissions reduction by 80 to 95% by 2050. But when setting up its proposal of a 40% emissions reduction target for 2030, the Commission based itself merely on the pathway to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050. A 40% GHG target is criticized by environmental organisations for giving us a 50/50 chance of exceeding 2°C of global warming.
It is now up to EU Member States to go beyond the proposed target of 40% by 2030 and to add more ambitious (and binding) targets for renewables and energy savings. This will certainly not be an easy task under current political and economic circumstances and review options might pave the way for upscaling ambition at a later point in time. But no deal in March would bear too many risks for the international climate trajectory on the road to Paris. Therefore, it’s time for EU leaders to get their act together to fight global climate change.