First in the class, but not best in the Class – The EU’s Proposal for the 2015 Climate Conference in Paris

The European Commission recently released its vision for the global climate change agreement, which is due to be adopted in Paris in December. It is worth noting that the EU is the first negotiating party to present its offer for the Paris agreement. Nevertheless, the extent to which the offer paves the way to an ambitious climate deal in Paris is questionable indeed.

On Wednesday, 25th February, the European Commission set out its vision for the new global climate change agreement, which is due to be adopted in Paris in December. The Member States are expected to make a decision concerning the exact content of the EU’s contribution to the Paris Conference on 6th March. According to the EU’s vision, the two degrees objective shall be reached through a legally binding protocol. The agreement would take effect as soon as it is ratified by enough states to cover 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The Commission aims for an agreement that would reduce global emissions by at least 60% below 2010 levels by 2050. However, the expected international contributions are unlikely to be in line with the trajectories required to realise the below two degrees objective in time for Paris. For this reason, the EU has proposed a revision process that would require the UN to assess progress every five years.

In light of these developments, discussions about the possibility of international climate partnerships between developed and developing countries have emerged. This being said, the wisdom of this type of purchase of CO2 credits from the South by the North is met with scepticism; especially given the risks this could entail for the integrity of the climate targets.

The EU’s proposal (in UN-jargon- INDC for “intended nationally determined contribution“) is based on the recently adopted 2030 climate and energy framework, which requires emission reductions of at least 40% of 1990 levels by 2030. This target represents a compromise between the sometimes-conflicting domestic understandings of a “European” climate and energy future.

It is worth noting that the EU is the first negotiating party to present its offer for the Paris agreement. Nevertheless, the extent to which one can agree with Climate and Energy Commissioner Cañete’s assertion that the offer paves the way to an ambitious agreement at the end of the year is questionable indeed.

The risk of watering down EU climate ambition

The 2030 EU climate objective is not ambitious enough to make a fair contribution to global climate protection. This being said, it should not come as a surprise that the EU Commission has largely abstained from commenting about the fairness of its offer. The target of 40% emissions reductions by 2030 is based on a decarbonisation scenario of 80% by 2050 – this puts the offer at the lower end of the IPCC recommended long-term goal of 80-95% by mid-century.

Furthermore, the Commission has proposed to include the emissions of the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) sector in the 40% target. The LULUCF sector was excluded in the current 2020 framework due to the challenges associated with the measurement and calculation of emissions. There was also concern that its inclusion could threaten the integrity of the EU climate target in its efforts to reduce emissions in other sectors (e.g. transportation). With any luck, the EU will foster clarity and confidence rather than dilute its 2030 ambition through the inclusion of the LULUCF sector. The British Climate and Energy Minister contends that reductions within the LULUCF sector should complement the 40% target rather than be included in the target itself, as this might undermine the credibility of the EU’s role as a frontrunner.

Other countries are positioning themselves according to the EU’s proposal  

This point is particularly striking given the EU’s role in establishing a precedent for other countries.  Countries with larger forestry and land use, such as Brazil and Indonesia, will undoubtedly observe how the EU deals with the LULUCF sector and its controversies. Transparency and accountability of international contributions are ranked very high on the European agenda, and should therefore apply all the more for the domestic climate protection policy. The EU should not pass up this opportunity to set a high standard for this year’s marathon of negotiations.

Moreover, it will be critical to observe the extent to which an increase of the 40% goal will be pursued. This is especially important given the use of the words “at least” in the rhetoric, which could be used to increase ambition. The EU’s 2030 climate target only mandates reductions in domestic emissions. Accordingly, the EU has left prospects for increasing global climate ambition open. An international carbon-trading scheme could be used to increase ambition; however, such a scheme could also allow for loopholes and open doors to creative accounting.

Moreover, the EU should pursue a more ambitious approach, for example by defining a mid-term climate target to be reached until 2025 and by continuing to push for reforms of the emissions trading system. The market stability reserve, envisioned by the European Parliament as a tool to improve price stability in carbon markets from 2019 onwards, is too little too late. Likewise, all backloaded allowances should be permanently removed from the market.

The EU, hesitant to act alone, relies on others

At present, the EU’s ability to mobilise the political will required to push for further concessions is questionable at best. The Climate Summit in Paris is not very high on the political agenda, and European countries are preoccupied with issues like terrorism, the Ukraine crisis and the Greek bailout. Additionally, many Member States believe that the EU has already done its fair share, and that other states should take the lead.

Accordingly, the EU has called on the developed countries and emerging economies in the G20 (the US and China in particular) to make bold commitments to climate protection. However, it cannot allow itself to rely on the actions of the G2; instead, the EU should proactively seek alliances with other partners worldwide.  

Climate diplomacy must respond to the needs of the partners

Despite the criticisms outlined above, the EU’s conviction to use its extensive diplomatic network, coupled with its recent launch of a climate diplomacy action plan, should be commended. The new EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Mogherini, alongside her colleague Cañete appear to be promoting this agenda. Nevertheless, this noble rhetoric must be followed by concrete action. Indeed, such a diplomatic strategy can only be deemed successful and serve to build confidence if it is bolstered by substance.

Regrettably, the EU’s INDC is limited to emissions reduction, and neglects the issue of adaptation. Indeed, the EU climate agenda bears an Achilles heel in the form of climate finance and adaptation. The Commission claims that it is “too early” to discuss climate finance commitments for the next decade; however, issues of climate finance and adaptation are central to a successful alliance-building between the EU and its “natural partners” in African, Latin American and island countries.

To make matters worse, the issue of “loss and damage” is completely excluded from the Commission’s 16-page document. The EU’s approach to preventable loss and damage is as crucial; especially given the high priority level of the issue for many countries. The longer the international community waits to take action on climate mitigation, the more susceptible those already-vulnerable countries become to the effects of climate change.  The exclusion of loss and damage from the EU’s vision is surely a disappointment for its prospective partners. One can only hope that the EU prioritises these types of confidence-building diplomatic measures in the future.

Climate change should be the core of the Energy Union – and the Energy Union should serve to strengthen EU climate leadership

The EU’s credibility at the negotiating table is directly linked to its ability to realise the decarbonisation goals of the Energy Union, for which a vision was outlined on 25th February. The Energy Union should not be limited to joint gas purchasing; nor should it blindly advocate the use of all domestic energy sources without regard to the risks and climate impacts of their extraction. Lastly, the presumed trade-off between security of supply, competitiveness, and climate protection should be eradicated from the political narrative.

An Energy Union based on a transition towards 100% renewables has the potential to reinforce Europe’s role as a pioneer in the realm of climate protection. However, this will require the support of the Member States. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s position as chair of this year’s G7 meeting puts the former “climate chancellor” in a unique position. Merkel should seize this opportunity, and use it to send a strong signal to her colleagues that the Energy Union should promote a European-wide Energiewende. She should also use her platform to push for an ambitious and fair deal at the COP in Paris.

The proposal of the Commission should not be the last word. Indeed, it is up to the Member States to recognise the (formerly) unique role of the EU as global climate frontrunner and continue to strive for the position of “best in the class.”

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