Europe and the ‘why me?’ approach to decarbonisation


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Europe and the ‘why me?’ approach to decarbonisation” was written by Arthur Neslen, for theguardian.com on Friday 24th October 2014 13.51 UTC

In the economically flush days of 2007 as states prepared poker stances for an anticipated Kyoto II deal in Copenhagen, the EU’s climate and energy targets for 2020 were seen as a ‘me first!’ moment.

Six years later, the bloc’s sequel is already being denounced by the clean energy industry and environmentalists as a ‘why me?’ package that barely rises above the EU’s own ‘business as usual’ forecasts, and comes with caveats that could render it toothless.

The 20-20-20 benchmarks for 2020 – of 20% CO2 cuts, renewable energy share and efficiency gains – had appeared to offer global leadership. Reciprocal pledges were expected to allow a dynamic new US president to galvanise a coherent response to climate change.

The 40-27-27 goals for 2030 slow the EU’s pace of change and extend to renewable energy the one clear failure of the 2008 package – a ‘non-binding’ energy efficiency goal that the bloc looks set to miss. The one binding emissions cut in the package is a formula that negotiators hope to apply at the Paris climate summit in 2015, now talked of as a last chance to save the whole business of international climate talks under the auspices of the UN.

But some negotiators from the Least Developed Countries (LDC) group are privately despairing of the package, viewing it as a shift away from the EU’s ultimate commitment of an 80-95% cut in emissions by 2050. According to scientific projections, this is Europe’s minimum contribution to preventing catastrophic global warming.

“This pledge is 10 years later than needed and does not meet our expectations of leadership nor what is required by the science to stay below a 2C increase,” said Dr Gary Theseira, of the Environmental Management and Climate Change Division of Malaysia’s climate ministry.

“It seems that the EU is not even aiming for a two degrees target anymore and that is incomprehensible for us in terms of the impacts it will have,” one LDC negotiator said, off the record.

Without explicit, binding pledges on energy efficiency and renewable energy, the EU’s end goals can seem wan and abstract abroad. The emissions trading system is now the bloc’s most meaningful market driver, but it would need to rise – perhaps by a factor of 10 – to spur significant fuel-switching. Senior commission sources freely admit that there is a political limit on how high the carbon price may go.

A surplus of 2.6bn allowances on the world’s carbon market will anyway whittle away the EU’s actual emissions cut from its headline figure to as little as 31%, according to NGOs like Carbon Market Watch. But even this may not be fully implemented if a clause in the 2030 package is activated, as environmentalists fear.

The first bullet point in the 2030 package document says that “the European Council calls on all countries to come forward with ambitious targets and policies well in advance of the Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris. It will revert to this issue after the Paris conference. The European Council will keep all the elements of the framework under review.”

At a press conference last night, the European Council president Herman Van Rompuy insisted that this did not imply a watering down of EU commitments. “You can be sure that what was decided now will be maintained and will not go below what was agreed,” he said. But scepticism is rife.

Industry groups in Brussels have invested heavily in promoting the argument that Europe has a population more than twice the size of the US, but represents only 11% of the world’s emissions. It cannot save the planet on its own, and its industries could be driven out of business if they try to do so – by cheaper and dirtier competitors. Action should thus be postponed until everyone moves at a similar pace. The EU’s relative deceleration accommodates this argument.

One practical problem with this is that decarbonisation requires an enormous impetus to restructure homes, travel, agriculture, jobs and ways of life, which becomes cheaper as the energy chain is transformed. Postponing action makes it more jolting and expensive – as new fossil fuel plants are built and locked into future energy supplies.

The EU’s 40% target has already been dismissed as “too little, too late” to meet the 2C target by the vice-chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Prof Jim Skea, who says that it will involve a superhuman effort between 2030-2050 that defies models of cost-effective decarbonisation.

But another problem is that emerging economies such as China – now the world’s biggest CO2 emitter – are unlikely to make these kinds of efforts in the absence of proof that nations more responsible for historic emissions, are doing their fair share – and helping to create an economic opportunity for others as they go.

The sad logic of the package agreed in Brussels on Thursday night is that Europe may not be the only COP party today looking at the short-term costs of decarbonisation and asking ‘why me?’.

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