Wednesday

22nd Feb 2017

Opinion

EU climate policy - too early to celebrate

  • 'EU emissions are playing a small, and diminishing, role in overall global emissions' (Photo: Mikko Itälahti)

There is no doubt that the European Commission’s decision to propose adopting a binding 40 percent greenhouse gas emission reduction by 2030 relative to 1990 is a victory for the greener side of EU politics. Chapeau!

However, it is not yet the time to uncork the champagne bottles.

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Experience from recent years tells us that member states and parliament cannot necessarily be counted on to support an ambitious climate policy.

Moreover, it will, at best, be in late 2015 that one can hope for the policy to be cast in stone in the form of formally agreed legislation.

In the meantime much energy will be expended on watering down the proposals.

Even the foreseen approach gives reason for concern. The policy package is meant to be on the agenda of the March meeting of EU leaders who, as we know, have very different views on the virtues of the commission’s proposals.

The European Council traditionally works on a consensus-oriented basis, while member states, in specific policy areas such as climate policy, decide by qualified majority - a development that it took decades rather than years to achieve.

The idea of having a consensus-oriented meeting of prime ministers pronouncing themselves at an early stage of negotiations on specific legislation is institutionally problematic.

One can only hope that presidents Herman van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso will remind prime ministers that national vetoes are not possible.

As said, the commission’s decision was a victory for the greener side over the (to be polite) less green side.

But this does not mean that it was a victory for the global climate.

The EU has insisted on being the standard bearer for a policy that would limit average global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

There is an overwhelming scientific consensus that, in order to achieve this, greenhouse gas emissions will have to be reduced to at least +/- 20 billion tonnes per year globally by 2050, corresponding to around 2 tonnes per capita (tpc).

Present EU emissions are around 8 tonnes per capita, virtually constant since 2009 and already at the level decided as the 2020 target.

The commission’s proposals imply that emissions would be reduced to 6 tonnes per capita by 2030. This means that the commission has in fact proposed to eliminate only 2 tonnes per capita (from 8 tpc in 2010 to 6 tpc in 2030) in the first 20 years period but 4 tonnes per capita in the subsequent 20 years period (from 6 tpc in 2030 to 2 tpc in 2050).

A lost opportunity

This policy raises serious questions about the consistency or, even worse, the credibility of the self-proclaimed EU leadership for the 2 degrees target.

Of course, the proposed 2030 target does not theoretically exclude that the EU will achieve a 2 tonne-per-capita emission level in 2050, but to expect that would be to push the challenge to the next generation.

We know that EU emissions are playing a small, and diminishing, role in overall global emissions and that increase in global temperature and other climate impacts depend much more on emission developments elsewhere.

In view of the above, EU politicians would be well advised to watch their language when they try to make us, and others, believe that if everybody were as good as we are, climate change would be under control.

The sad thing is that, if science is correct, the maximum 2 degrees temperature increase is a lost opportunity.

The challenge facing EU leaders and other global leaders is no longer how to stay below the plus 2 degrees, but to do as much as possible for damage limitation.

Any effort to water down the commission’s proposals would mean opposing even this modest objective.

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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