21st Oct 2016


Commission in do-nothing mode on climate change policy

  • Rather than issuing a 'what-do-you-think' document the commission ought to be saying what it thinks (Photo:

“Commission moves forward on climate and energy towards 2030” reads the headline of the press release accompanying a recent ‘green paper’ on the same issue.

Regrettably, the headline is more ambitious than the text of the paper.

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The Commission is right in stating that “early agreement on the 2030 framework is important” in order to ensure the right infrastructure investment in the near future, to provide an incentive for innovation, and to decide the EU ambition level in the international climate negotiation of a post 2020 regime, to be finalized in 2015.

Unfortunately, rather than providing a stance on this, the document offers a number of general reflections and reports on the outcome of the different, already much debated, “roadmaps” on climate and energy policy.

There is no mentioning of the fact that any cost-effective trajectory from where we are today towards 2030 would imply more effort now than currently agreed in the 2020 policy.

The document reports, correctly, that emissions in 2011 were 16 percent below 1990 levels. But it fails to mention that this - taking Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) credits into account - is already an over-fulfillment of the 2020 target (this has been the case since 2009!).

The best way to get to a +/- 40% reduction in 2030 as suggested in the climate roadmap cannot be to do “nothing” (except keep present emission levels constant) over the next seven years and then aim for a 25 percent reduction in the subsequent 10 years.

In fact the situation is even worse. The Emissions Trading System (ETS) – allowing companies to trade pollution credits – has been capsized.

The unused emission allowances from the 2008-12 period, carried over into the 2013-20 trading period, plus the allowances to be auctioned in the coming years means that 2020 emissions from ETS-covered installations can easily exceed what would be consistent with the overall 20 percent reduction target by 2020.

The commission’s persistent hesitation in taking proper corrective action on the ETS is a major climate policy - and credibility - problem.

The document is also disappointingly silent on the more recent debate on the role of biomass in climate mitigation.

The scientific committee of the European Environment Agency in 2011 pointed out that the automatic consideration of biomass as carbon neutral is unjustified and may lead to major climate-unfriendly policy developments, particularly the substitution of natural gas with wood pellets.

Recent past history shows the commission is slow to act on new evidence - almost five years in the case of liquid biofuels.

There is no need to wait another three or four years before agreeing a more correct CO2 assessment of different types of solid biomass.

Less questioning and more action

But the most serious objection to the green paper is not on substance but on format.

A ‘green paper’ is appropriate when opening a new policy area or extending an existing one into uncharted waters. This is not the case for climate or energy policy.

Rather than issuing a what-do-you-think document, the commission ought to be telling us what the commission thinks.

There is no shortage of material on which a commission opinion, or even proposal, could have been based.

Moreover, it is not as if the answers of the important stakeholders are not already clear. I am far from being the only one able to anticipate the opinions of the electricity sector, the chemical industry, the renewable energy sector and the oil industry.

The commission’s reluctance to make policy proposals has serious implications. It paralyses the EU decision-making process. The elimination of SO2 from power plants, urban waste water treatment, or catalytic converters on cars would never have happened if the commission’s approach at the time had been: “What do you think?".

It appears obvious that the Commission is unable to agree on an ambitious climate policy. But even an unambitious policy proposal is better than a questionnaire.

The defensive commission position is particularly unfortunate given the current institutional timetable. Following the responses to the questions in the green paper, the commission is expected to table “proposals” by the end of the year.

But to what avail?

The European Parliament will go into election mode next year long before any legislative proposal could be dealt with. And the next parliament can, at best, only be expected to pronounce itself in the second half of 2015.

Can we afford to energy and climate policy remaining in limbo for the next three years?

The EU has been seen as the major player pushing for an ambitious global agreement on climate change. If it is to maintain this image in the negotiations towards 2015, it will be in spite of, rather than because of, present commission policy.

The writer is a former director in the European Commission and head of the European Commission’s negotiations on the UN Climate Convention and the subsequent Kyoto Protocol


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