“How serious will the new EU leadership be about climate change targets?”, by Marco Siddi, EXACT alumni

Provocative columnIn January 2014, the European Commission presented a policy framework with proposed EU climate and energy targets for the year 2030. Objectives include a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to 1990 levels, an increase in renewable energy to at least 27 percent of total EU energy consumption and a non-binding commitment to raising energy efficiency by 30 percent. According to the Commission, EU member states would build on the 2020 targets (20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to 1990 and 20 percent increase in both renewables and efficiency) and continue to progress towards a low-carbon economy.

Shortly after the 2030 policy framework was presented, environmental organisations such as Greenpeace criticised the Commission for failing to set more ambitious goals. Indeed, a 7 percent increase in the share of renewables over 10 years and the non-binding target for energy efficiency are unimpressive. Now, member states may not even agree upon the modest 2030 objectives. As EU heads of state and government have not yet discussed the Commission’s proposal, the latter remains a working document. The Ukrainian crisis dominated the last EU summits; as a result of tensions between the EU and Russia (Europe’s main energy supplier), discussions in Brussels focused on differentiating imports, building a central purchasing body for gas and using domestic fossil fuel resources.

Last March, EU leaders pledged that a decision on the 2030 framework will be taken no later than October 2014. Hence, only one month is left to respect the deadline that they themselves proposed. If EU leaders do not agree on a credible climate change package – ideally one that is more ambitious than the Commission’s proposal – the EU will have little bargaining power at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, where global targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions should be decided. The EU risks a repetition of the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference, when it was sidelined by the US and China and no binding targets were agreed.

Against this background, the first moves of the nascent Juncker Commission are not encouraging. According to the current plan, the Climate Action Directorate will be merged with the Energy Directorate; the Environment and the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Directorates will also be lumped together. The Climate Action Directorate was created by the last Barroso Commission to assist with the implementation of the 2020 targets and address climate change issues (previously, climate change was within the competence of DG Environment). The disappearance of a dedicated climate commissioner is hardly a good signal in view of the Paris climate change conference.

Moreover, the proposed new Climate Action and Energy commissioner – former Spanish minister for agriculture, food and the environment Miguel Arias Cañete – is highly controversial. Cañete served as president of two oil companies, Ducar SL and Petrologis Canarias SL, until 2012 and he still holds shares of both companies. According to a statement he made in 2011, the value of these shares exceeds 300,000 euros. Cañete’s brother-in-law became director of Petrologis and Ducar in 2012 and his son is a board member at Ducar. Hence, the proposed commissioner faces a clear conflict of interests. Furthermore, it is hard to believe that a politician who has been deeply involved in the oil industry will take climate change issues at heart.

The appointment of Donald Tusk to the post of President of the European Council compounds negative developments in the Commission concerning climate action. During Tusk’s premiership, Poland was one of the staunchest opponents of measures to fight climate change. The country generates over 95 percent of its electricity from coal and its carbon dioxide emissions per capita continue to rise. The UN Climate Change Conference hosted by Tusk in Warsaw last year produced no results. Significantly, Tusk changed his minister for the environment during the conference, appointing Maciej Grabowski, an advocate of shale gas extraction. Tusk’s proposal for a European Energy Union is no less controversial, as it focuses entirely on fossil fuels and disregards renewables. According to Tusk, the EU should create a central body for the purchase of gas and make full use of its fossil fuel resources, including coal and shale gas. Following the proposal, the EU should import liquefied natural gas (LNG) from as far as the US and Australia, despite the additional transport-related emissions and the risk of accidents that this would entail.

If the EU is serious about its commitment to limit greenhouse gas emissions, it should change course and shift its focus and funding towards renewables. The main lesson to be learned from the Ukrainian crisis in terms of energy supplies is that the EU needs to diversify its consumption towards domestic renewables, rather than seeking new exporters of fossil fuels. The 2030 targets should be more ambitious than in the current Commission proposal; the efficiency target should become binding, more drastic emission cuts are necessary and the renewables target should be considerably higher. An agreement among EU leaders must be found quickly, so that the Union can prepare adequately its negotiating position at the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference.

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