Europe backpedals on climate

Europe's World

Climate & Energy

At the latest European Council meeting in Brussels, the heads of state and government seem to have decided to ignore reality and opt for a back-of-an-envelope solution on tackling climate change.

First the bad news: Europe has lost its status as a climate pioneer. Over the last few years, the EU has gone into reverse gear. The October summit’s message is clear – and should be ringing alarm bells. The 2°C goal is nothing but hot air, for it is the industrial lobby and the fossil fuel suppliers that are dictating terms. Climate change is a major challenge, but Europe is further away than ever from a common approach. Everyone is fighting their own battle (or not). And when in doubt, any country can derail any European target by exercising its veto. Short-term interests are undermining Europe’s long-term competitiveness and costing the Earth.

And second, the bad news: growth markets and future technologies are being sidelined. This will destroy jobs and leave Europe struggling to play catch-up with the US and China in multi-billion-euro markets.

The European Council has merely completed the task that the European Commission started with its totally inadequate proposal for a common EU climate strategy, published back in January. The heads of state and government have now watered it down even more.

For example, the European Council endorsed an EU target of a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (compared to 1990), although Europe needs a 55% target. But how is this – inadequate – target to be achieved? That’s something of a conundrum, given that the target set for the share of renewable energy consumed in the EU in 2030 is just 27%. Will there be binding commitments for member states? Apparently not. As a result, energy system transformation, even in countries like Germany, is at risk of losing momentum.  It’s business as usual for nuclear and coal: the British nuclear industry receives direct subsidies, while in Poland and Germany, coal is subsidized indirectly via the malfunctioning emissions trading system.

Energy efficiency has dropped off the agenda. Here, the heads of state and government merely set an indicative target, making a non-binding recommendation instead of setting a mandatory goal. But energy-saving is one of the key pillars of climate change mitigation and energy supply security. Every kilowatt hour saved is carbon saved. By failing to set an ambitious energy efficiency target, Europe has missed the chance to create 400,000 new jobs, increase competitiveness and innovation, and reduce Europe’s dependency on fossil fuel imports.

Anyone warning about cold winters and gas shortages as a result of the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s attempted blackmail has no option but to adopt a strategy to reduce our import dependency, and that means taking rigorous action on energy-saving. With such a strategy, Germany could free itself from dependency on gas imports from Russia by 2030. The European Council’s proposals are totally irresponsible. Only Vladimir Putin will be delighted that Europe is making no attempt to reduce its reliance on Russian gas.

As for the reform of emissions trading, the summit was a complete failure. German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks lobbied ahead of the summit for faster and more ambitious reform, but that was of no interest to Angela Merkel. The European Council gave no sign that emission allowance prices will be stabilised via a market stability reserve. The only certainty is that it’s uncertain as to when emissions trading can be expected to send out a price signal and thus create much-needed incentives for investment in carbon-neutral energy generation and climate-friendly industries. The decision keeps prices of dirty coal-fired electricity low when they should be on an opposite trajectory.

The decision to agree further measures via the Council in future is a fatal concession to coal producer Poland and energy efficiency opponents and Euro-sceptics in the UK. It will sideline the European Parliament and weaken the Commission. In the ordinary legislative procedure, the majority of Member States, representing the majority of the EU population, reach decisions in the Council. In the European Council, decisions are taken unanimously and every country has a veto. Weak compromises are therefore the most likely outcome. So this European Council meeting was a black day for European democracy as well, which the Treaty of Lisbon was meant to strengthen.

Poor Europe.

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