Sunday

22nd Jan 2017

Opinion

Proof of climate plan in the implementation pudding

  • Few of the leaders who may sign up to these proposals will be in government in 2020 (Photo: EUobserver)

There is much that is momentous in the European Commission's climate and energy proposals announced on 23 January, even if a lot seems to rely more on hope than clear planning. What will the rest of the world make of this bold leap forward?

The key aim is that by 2020, Europe should have reduced its carbon emissions by 20 per cent, improved its energy efficiency by 20 per cent and be obtaining 20 per cent of its energy from renewable sources compared with a baseline of 2005. In addition, 10 per cent of road fuel should by that date derive from biological rather than from fossil sources.

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These of course are the headline targets beloved these days by governments of all complexions. Setting targets has become a unfortunate proxy for delivery, especially when responsibility for their achievement can safely be left to others; easier still when, as in this case, the target is not based on an action plan whose feasibility has been demonstrated. Without such plans, we should not be surprised if they are not attained.

It is relatively easy to set an arbitrary target - even a ‘binding' target - to achieve something in twelve years time. It is rather harder to set a target for the next three years, or one year, and to obtain agreement to penalties that will be levied if that interim target is breached.

Few of the leaders who may sign up to these proposals will be in government in 2020.

The danger with targets

So what is likely to happen, is that we shall make some stumbling and not very effectual progress. When it becomes clear that we will not achieve the targets we set ourselves without considerable sleight of hand, we just conjure up some new and even more ambitious targets that will swallow up our non-achievement thus far and conveniently relieve us of the need to account for progress with the present ones.

This, after all is what we are doing now with the modest Kyoto targets from which Europe as a whole is still a long way short of achievement without resorting to those ‘special mechanisms' which have always appeared slightly dodgy. This is the danger with targets.

Nevertheless, Kyoto served to bring most of the rest of the world onto the climate action train, and these bold proposals may similarly continue to impress, even though without more detailed implementation planning, they still seem like style over substance. I can't even see how they all could be achieved together. This is not a question of cost or political will, but of simple mathematics.

If energy efficiency improves by 20 per cent, then emissions will fall by 20 per cent all other things being equal. If now 20 per cent of this energy comes from non-carbon sources then emissions will fall still further. Achieving the targets for energy efficiency and renewables will thus lead to emission reductions of some 30 per cent.

Of course if energy demand rises, then the drop in emissions will be less. But I have never understood how it is possible, across an economy, to measure energy efficiency independently of energy use. Yes, this light bulb may consume less electricity than that one, but what also matters is the time for which it is turned on. The off switch requires no investment, whereas replacing a boiler or ordering expensive insulation does.

Total energy use therefore also needs a target. Reminding consumers of their energy consumption - the heating of buildings is the greatest single contributor to carbon emissions - could help here. Control energy demand, and energy efficiency will look after itself. If we are serious about global warming we should be prepared occasionally to be chilly.

Omitting nuclear from the target energy mix

Another major weakness is the Commission's reluctance to focus on 'low-carbon' energy soures and thus to omit nuclear from the target energy mix. If we are serious about fighting climate change and reducing carbon emissions then we cannot afford one hand tied behind our backs.

Of course, nuclear energy is associated with difficulties and problems. As are nuclear weapons. But just as most Europeans have managed to justify nuclear armed alliances as a means of defending their freedoms, so they need to reconcile themselves to nuclear energy as a means of defending the world against climate change.

In the context of 'binding' targets, nuclear energy offers the prospect of a clear and implementable plan towards a low carbon economy. Much space heating, now fuelled by gas or oil, could be converted to nuclear electricity. Much road fuel, could, in a few years, be substituted by non-polluting electrically produced hydrogen.

Moreover, if heavy power users such as the aluminium smelters, are not to be driven out of Europe by costly traded emission credits, they will need to have available large amounts of reliable low-carbon power. Where is this to come from if not from nuclear?

When Mr Barroso announced these proposals in the European Parliament - and surely the nod in this democratic direction must be counted one of their more commendable features - he put the annual cost at about three tankfuls of petrol - around EUR 150 per year for each European citizen.

That seems quite modest. Others suspect that it will cost considerably more. It is hard to see how anyone can know for certain and in any case, what we actually pay for our energy will be determined by much more than these Commission proposals.

Nevertheless there will be a cost, and for Europe as a whole this will be massive, maybe €1000 billion by 2020. Furthermore, these changes are likely to affect, in one way or another, the lifestyle of everyone in the European Union. Of course they represent an opportunity as well as a cost: the opportunity to lead the world into reversing climate change, perhaps and the opportunity to exploit world markets in green technology.

For these reasons, the climate and energy plans need to be considered every bit as seriously as the Constitutional Treaty for their impact is likely to be considerably more momentous. A lot of work needs to go into the implementation plans in the next year or so.

The rest of the world will be watching.

The author is editor of EuropaWorld

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