UPDATE, 22/01/14, 11.10: The European Commission has just announced it will be backing a climate target to reduce emissions by 40 per cent by 2030. It has also recommended a binding target to get 27 per cent of the EU’s energy from renewable sources by 2030. This target is not country specific, however. The text below has been amended in light of the announcement.
The European Commission has decided it’s time for member states to make up their own minds about how best to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But does the decision place too much faith in countries’ desire to decarbonise their economies?
Months of internal squabbling came to a head today as the European Commission published a White Paper outlining its position on the EU’s 2030 climate and energy targets. The commission recommended a target to reduce EU emissions by between 40 per cent by 2030 – the upper end of what was expected.
It also backed an EU-wide target to get 27 per cent of the region’s energy from renewable sources in 2030 – roughly in line with what the commision expects to happen if countries continue to implement decarbonisation policies.
The renewable energy target does not obligate individual member states to ramp up generation to that extent, however. That makes it slightly weaker than the EU’s previous goal.
Act of faith
Today’s decision represents a significant change in approach from when the EU originally agreed its climate goals.
European policymakers agreed three targets in 2007, dubbed the 20-20-20 goals. Those targets required members states to reduce emissions by 20 per cent, get 20 per cent of electricity from renewable sources, and increase energy efficiency by 20 per cent, all by 2020.
The commission set accompanying country-specif targets, meaning member states had to go about decarbonising their economies with a particular focus on ramping up renewable energy. For instance, the UK alone was obligated to get 15 per cent of its energy from renewable energy sources.
By deciding to abandon country-specific renewable energy targets, the commission is taking away such restrictions, however. Instead, it is placing its faith solely in countries’ commitment to cutting emissions and ramping up renewables.
There is a chance member states won’t pursue effective policies without the guiding hand of a country-specific renewable energy target, however.
For instance, governments could choose to invest in currently carbon capture and storage technology on the basis that it could deliver significant emissions reductions in the future. But putting CCS on full size power plants is currently not viable on a large scale. So investing in CCS could be a risky strategy if it takes investment away from proven low carbon technologies such as wind and solar power.
Perhaps a more likely scenario is that member states – the UK in particular – ramp up nuclear power generation. But building new nuclear plants can take around a decade, and there is a significant risk of delays and cost overruns – not to mention a European Commission investigation into the legality of the UK’s latest nuclear deal.
Under the old targets, the EU forced countries to reduce emissions in a way it was confident would work. The commission’s decision to abandon a country-specific renewable energy target will be validated if member states show they can implement effective climate policies – but that’s far from certain.
If member states are truly committed to reducing emissions, renewable energy is likely to be a large part of the EU’s future energy policy anyway. The industry remains concerned that today’s decision could harm investment, however. If that’s the case, it puts the commission on a crash course with the EU’s biggest hitter – Germany.
A spokesperson for industry group, the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA), says investors need a long term signal that Europe is committed to purusing renewable energy technologies, which extending the renewable energy target would have provided. Without it, the EWEA is concerned that investment will disappear, harming the industry and the EU’s chances of hitting the new 2030 emissions reduction target.
But Guy Newey, head of environment and energy at thinktank Policy Exchange, argues that the old renewable energy target was too inflexible, and made decarbonisation efforts unnecessarily expensive. He says renewable energy sources are very likely to be a significant part of the energy mix in 2030, but that “the idea that we can decide now what the right mix of technologies is [to decarbonise the energy sector], is foolish”.
Some countries have already set out long term energy plans based on the EU continuing to back low carbon energy sources, however. Most prominently, Germany has a long term goal to get 50 per cent of its energy from renewable sources in 2030, rising to 80 per cent in 2050.
Consequently, the German government lobbied for the commision to extend the renewable energy target. Without it, Germany is concerned industries could move to countries with cheaper energy, in the short term.
The European Parliament has already indicated it supports extending the renewable energy target, and could insist on changes to the commission’s plan later this month – so the fight wouldn’t appear to be over yet.
Even if the commission sticks to its guns – and member states fulfil their promise – the emissions reduction target may not be enough to help the world avoid the most serious impacts of climate change.
Professor Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, says a 40 per cent target is potentially too low to give the world a good chance of warming less than two degrees above pre-industrial levels – the minimum level of ambition agreed by 192 countries in 1992.
While a 40 per cent target would be in line with the EU’s longer-term goal to reduce emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, Nick Mabey, co-founder of environmental consultancy, E3G, says it’s not based on the latest climate science.
If emissions peak later, or the earth is more sensitive to greenhouse gas emissions than was estimated in 2007, Anderson says the EU needs to pursue an 80 per cent reduction by 2030 for a “reasonable probability” of the world avoiding two degrees of warming.
So while the commission is putting its faith in member states to act to reduce emissions without firm guidance, it’s also banking on a 40 per cent cut being enough to help the world avoid the worst impacts of climate change.