In Friday’s wee hours, the 28-nation European Union committed itself to fight climate change by rolling back dangerous carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 to at least 40% less than their benchmark 1990 levels. The EU has already almost met its existing goal of a 20% cut by 2020.
The unanimous move to accept the new 2030 EU climate target speaks well for the European Union. A venerable, strong bloc of developed nations, it has made the first major commitment in the world to the goal of global climate agreement in Paris by the end of 2015 (effective 2020).
Perhaps more importantly, the EU climate decision provides a powerful impetus for the rest of the world to get its act together before December’s UN meeting in Lima, the vital runup to a Paris accord. Europe has now put China, North America, Russia, India, Australia, and others to the test.
At the same time, the EU’s decision has disappointed many who feel the nations have not gone far enough, though the Europe’s own effort has gone quickly and successfully. Chief among the downhearted are those who rejoiced at this week’s release of a “no regrets” primer from the World Resources Institute claiming that a deeper cut—9% more decarbonization and less natural gas use, to be precise—could be achieved.
Angela Merkel may top the list of individuals. While US and other international media seem to concur with, and praise, her words at an early-morning news conference—“that Europe will be… an important party in future binding commitments of an international climate agreement”— the German chancellor also expressed regret that the EU climate talks had lowballed on energy efficiency (insulation, for example) and renewable energy (solar, wind, etc.) targets. Ms. Merkel told those assembled:
“We could have envisaged getting more, but in the spirit of compromise, we decided to agree on a [less binding] 27% target.”
Nevertheless, by gaining universal agreement in Brussels on a binding 40% reduction and other broad goals, the EU has kept to its word almost completely, made compromises among nations where they were sensible, and overcome quite a few anticipated obstacles. These concerns take three forms: European national, EU-centered, and international.
European national concerns
A patchwork of 28 sovereign nations, the European Union suffers from conflicting internal energy priorities and some resulting environmental policy differences:
- Development of cheap shale gas by some European countries.
- Production of and economic dependence on coal, notably by Poland and the Czech Republic.
- Differing commitments to the use of nuclear power.
- French reluctance to extend power lines over the Pyrenees, which would allow Portugal and Spain to export their surplus power from renewables.
Europe’s current economic uncertainty (the sovereign debt crisis): France, Italy, and the European Central Bank urge Germany to relax on budgets, spend more to stimulate the Eurozone.
- Cheap shale gas and coal from non-EU nations.
- Uncertainty about Russia destabilizing the Ukraine.
- Positions of China and India.
- Middle East tensions.
In the end, the European Union had to make some side deals to reach the agreement. Germany and the Nordic countries preferred greater commitments, and strident Sweden even held out until the last hours. (The nongovernmental organization Greenpeace had pushed for an emissions cut of 55%.) The UK’s resistance to the high initial cost of energy efficiency clashed with the desires of Germany and Denmark to make them compulsory.
Others worried that the EU might be setting too high a target, unattainable by the largest polluters (China and US). Some feared that the combination of subsidies for clean technology and cheap shale gas from outside nations might weaken European finances.
From European Council President Herman Van Rompuy:
“It was not easy, not at all, but we managed to reach a fair decision. It sets Europe on an ambitious yet cost-effective climate and energy path.”
“Deal!” he said in a tweet.
The Council as a whole announced online that Europe was on target for its 2050 goals. It praised the coordinated approach among member states and noted that the pact will ensure regulatory certainty for investors, as well as enabling the EU to engage actively in the Lima and Paris negotiations on a new international climate agreement for 2020. Many media analyses view the accomplishment as a triumph for diplomacy between environment and energy interests, which can often end unsatisfactorily.
The World Resources Institute’s farther-reaching analysis of EU climate opportunities, released Monday of this week, shows how the 28-country European bloc might be able to achieve carbon reductions of 49% by 2030 by slashing natural gas imports in half. By doing so, the EU would more than meet its stated international commitment and would also substantially increase its own energy independence. From WRI:
“The potential energy security benefits from cost-effective efficiency improvements and realistic renewable energy growth suggest that the EU itself has much to gain from a more aggressive approach. By encouraging reductions beyond the 40 percent currently proposed, the EU can drive greater climate action globally by showing that countries can cut emissions while strengthening energy security and other domestic policy priorities.”
More on the WRI proposals for EU climate and energy in an update later this weekend. For now, Van Rompuy has the last word, claiming victory for the “most ambitious, cost-effective” climate approach thus far.
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