A lack of ambition on climate

Oscar Reyes explains why the EU is off target with its new 2030 climate plan

March 25, 2014 · 5 min read

Followers of climate change policy are used to getting their disappointment early. With the launch of the EU’s 2030 climate and energy plan, the European Commission has offered several years’ worth of let-downs in one handy package.

The new EU proposals set a 40 per cent binding target on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, coupled with a 27 per cent EU-wide target on renewables. We shouldn’t lose sight of how far short this is from what the science of climate change requires. The greenhouse gas target is just over half of what’s actually needed if the EU is to take its fair share of global action on climate change, according to Professor Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. To put the figures in context, if EU emissions continue to reduce at the current rate (due mainly to factors such as the outsourcing of manufacturing) then the EU would already be on track for a decrease of between 32 per cent (the European Commission’s own figures) and over 50 per cent (according to independent assessments).

The Commission’s proposals are even more notable for what they lack. A 27 per cent target for energy from renewable sources represents just a 7 per cent increase on the EU’s 2020 commitments, in line with what industry estimates suggest would happen without any target. Moreover, while the new target is described as ‘binding’, it rolls back on the current policy of placing specific obligations on individual member states. That means climate laggards can free-ride off other member states that have already exceeded the EU’s targets. Debate on a third target on energy efficiency was delayed until summer 2014, with observers seeing no sign that a binding resolution is on the horizon.

In its defence, the European Commission claims that its hands are tied by EU member states’ poverty of ambition. A stronger greenhouse gas target might risk a Polish veto, while the UK (where the government is heavily backing state-subsidised nuclear power) led a group of countries opposed to nationally binding renewables targets.

‘The art of politics is to propose something you can actually get through,’ countered climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard in the press conference that launched the new climate and energy package. But it’s a remarkably poor strategy to throw your hand so early in the negotiating game, and it’s not hard to see the influence of big business lobbying behind the low targets and weakened regulations.

Fossil fuel lobbyists will also welcome the effective killing of the fuel quality directive post-2020, opening the door to imports of dirty fuels such as Canada’s tar sands. Meanwhile, new regulations on fracking for ‘shale gas’, announced alongside the EU’s 2030 package, have failed to deliver any more than non-binding regulation and industry self-monitoring. Here, too, the UK was a leading lobbyist in defence of the fossil fuel industry.

The failures are even starker in the case of proposed reforms to the emissions trading system (ETS), the sinking flagship of EU climate policy. The ETS has so far awarded huge subsidies to some of the EU’s most polluting industries, while failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and undermining other environmental measures.

The European Commission reluctantly acknowledged back in 2012 that ‘structural reforms’ to emissions trading were needed. But the proposed remedies fall well short of addressing the problems. A new 2.2 per cent annual target from 2021 for sectors covered by the ETS (up from 1.74 per cent currently) means that an accumulated surplus of more than 2 billion emissions allowances will continue well into the next decade. The Commission is also proposing to create a ‘market stability reserve’ from 2021, which would temporarily withhold emissions allowances if the price gets too low. That would leave the surplus allowances in the system, while doing little to prop up carbon prices. More fundamentally, the incrementalism of emissions trading is entirely at odds with the scale of the climate change problem. The Commission hasn’t just declined to address this; its proposals actually move to continue a failing emissions trading system until at least 2030.

For all the talk of political realism, it need not have been like this. In climate debates, realism starts with a scientific assessment that catastrophic climate change needs the EU to cut 60 to 80 per cent of its greenhouse gas emissions without delay. That could be achieved through a mix of binding targets, direct regulation to limit emissions and increase efficiency, and reforms to EU decision‑making that would wrest control away from big business interests, as I’ve set out in more detail in a report for Corporate Europe Observatory called Life Beyond Emissions Trading.

But it’s best not to hold your breath. The European Commission’s presentation of its climate and energy package was peppered with talk of ‘ambition’, but it has once again failed to offer anything of the sort.



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