What EU pledges mean for the future of the climate

EU leaders have agreed to a domestic emissions reduction target of 40% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. The new framework, initially set out in January, also includes increasing energy efficiency and renewables targets 27% by 2030.

Key features and reaction

While the news was quick to be congratulated by politicians, untidy comprises were required for the deal to be brokered. Poland, who get almost all of their energy from coal, threatened to veto the agreement over fears it would lead to rising energy bills. One compromise made allowances for poorer member states to give their power industries free emissions credits through the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). A similar concession exists under previous policy but, controversially, so far funds have generally gone to supporting coal industries. The 2030 agreement aims to eradicate this practice, explicitly stating that free credits should be used “to promote real investments modernising the energy sector” and, despite not expressly forbidding the support of coal industries, aims to eradicate this practice. Another key concession is the creation of a new fund comprising 2% of all EU ETS permits to poorer EU countries to assist them in modernising their energy sectors. It is unclear who will manage this fund and the possibility still remains that the money could be spent on coal investment.

©Ainhoa Goma/Oxfam/Creative Commons License

©Ainhoa Goma/Oxfam/Creative Commons License

Several critics have voiced their disapproval at the deal, saying it doesn’t go far enough. Professor Jim Skea, a vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), says the plan is too weak and would not lead to the IPCC’s long-term target of 80% by 2050 saying “I don’t think many people have grasped just how huge this task is”. Professor Skea claims that cutting emissions by 40% by 2030 leaves too much to do in the run up to 2050, as future leaders will have to make a three-fold cut in just 20 years, a change he considers too steep. This view is shared by Brook Riley, climate justice and energy campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, who said the emissions targets don’t go far enough to “end Europe’s dependency on fossil fuels or to speed up our transition to a clean energy future”. The other targets for efficiency and renewable energy have also been the target of criticism from a variety of groups and companies. It is also seen as essential that ETS is updated to ensure that the carbon price is reliable and forces adoption of low-carbon technology and energy sources.

Why the EU cannot act alone

Despite this criticism, the 2030 deal is the most ambitious climate change deal announced by the European Union to date. Unfortunately for the EU, no matter what agreements are reached in the region, it will take commitment on a global stage for the necessary change to occur to reduce carbon emissions to a sustainable level. This is a point not lost on Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s climate commissioner. Hedegaard has urged the US to follow the example set in Europe, saying “in itself [the EU] cannot solve the climate change issueThe Americans have to come forward with something ambitious, something tangible and something concrete.” She added, “I believe that only the moment that the Americans have done so, then the Chinese will come forward”.

The United States of America and China are the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, contributing 16% and 29% of global emissions, respectively (see figure 1). As it stands, the US is set to fail its Copenhagen 2009 pledge to reduce emissions by 3.6% by 2020 from 1990 levels, with emissions last year actually increasing.

Andrew Graph

Figure 1. Global emissions over time (source: World Energy Outlook 2014 presentation to the press)

Shortly after the 2030 policy announcement by the EU, it was been revealed that, after secret talks, the US and China have started to make commitments on emissions. The US has pledged to cut emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025 and China has for the first time put a cap on its own emissions. China, the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, has agreed to stop increasing these emissions by 2030 at the latest. Perhaps more significantly, China aims to produce 20% of its total energy consumption from sources other than fossil fuels, amounting to an enormous 800 to 1,000 additional gigawatts of energy generation to come from zero-emission sources such as nuclear, wind and solar. Despite this landmark announcement, severe criticism remains, with experts predicting that China’s pledge is not enough to limit global warming to a 2° C rise, the IPCC’s critical limit. As China’s emissions are predicted to peak around 2030, their pledge may not actually involve taking any deliberate action on their rising emissions.

Where does this leave us?

While there are some encouraging movements coming from the big players in climate change action, the pledges and targets set have largely consisted of what leaders consider as politically achievable, regardless of the demands made by activists and scientists. Despite politicians reaching comprises that equate to the minimum action required, there is still the possibility that they may fail on their weak promises. With so much at stake at the UN’s critical climate summit in Paris next year, the battle between science and politics will only intensify as an agreement satisfactory to all parties looks to be made. As discussions in the lead up to Paris are currently taking place in Lima, it is only possible to wait and see if a real global attempt is agreed upon to halt, or at least slow, climate change.

Andrew Stretton

 

 

 


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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