European Climate Leadership under Siege – the 2030 Climate and Energy Debate

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Wind Turbine in Llanrwst, Wales

The European Union (EU) has long proclaimed itself a leader of global climate ambition and a champion of the low carbon economy. The controversial debate on the EU’s climate and energy policies beyond 2020 will have far-reaching impacts on the global climate trajectory. Due to the influence of powerful interest groups, Europe might roll back its commitment to combating climate change.

With the adoption of the Climate and Energy Package in 2009, the EU committed itself to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 20%, to reach a 20% renewables share in the energy mix and to enhance energy efficiency by 20% by the year 2020. These so-called 20-20-20 targets have spurred important policies within the European Member States on the way towards a low carbon economy and have set standards for environmental policies elsewhere.

Recently, the European Commission launched a debate on the framework beyond 2020 when the current policy framework with binding targets will have expired. An ambitious 2030 climate and energy package could revitalize the international climate negotiations and help to build the much needed momentum towards a global climate agreement in 2015. At the same time, the EU should finally increase its current GHG target to raise its ambition level pre-2020. The urgency to put the fight against climate change high on the political agenda has once again been highlighted by the results of the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

Two of the next three international climate conferences will take place in the EU (Warsaw 2013 and Paris 2015). Europe alone cannot guarantee an ambitious and fair global climate regime, but should the EU fail to make these conferences a success, the whole process will be at stake, if not come to a halt altogether. Therefore, the EU must spur its domestic climate and energy ambition with binding 2030 targets as a centrepiece.

Calls for a more ‘pragmatic’ energy policy and powerful lobby influence

However, against the backdrop of the economic and financial crisis, Europe faces a severe test of its international credibility as a climate leader. The proponents of ambitious targets for emissions reduction, renewables and energy efficiency beyond 2020 are struggling with a powerful opposition, which threatens to undermine EU climate ambition for many years to come.

With the call for economic recovery and growth dominating the European agenda, the arguments of cost effectiveness and competitiveness are used against policy proposals to address the urgency of the climate crisis. The influential lobby group BusinessEurope – which certainly does not speak for the entire European business community – claims that EU climate leadership would be bad for competitiveness. This narrative also led to the fierce opposition against ‘backloading’ emission allowances to stabilize the European Emissions Trading System (ETS) earlier this year with the result of an extremely weak compromise agreement.

The strong and growing opposition to climate action threatens to undermine the EU’s commitment to decarbonise its energy system and to make a transition to a low carbon economy. In spite of hosting of the upcoming UN Climate Summit, the Polish government is spearheading this fight against ambitious climate and energy policies for the EU.

Several stakeholders advocate a so-called ‘pragmatic’ or ‘technology neutral’ approach, which implies only a GHG emissions reduction target for 2030 and no separate targets for renewables and energy efficiency (BusinessEurope even calls for competitiveness and security of supply targets instead). But a single GHG target will not be enough to ensure strong growth of renewables and investments in energy savings. This is particularly true under the current design of the EU ETS that does not deliver a sufficient price signal.

Furthermore, such an approach would boost nuclear energy as a low carbon energy source – this is also the rationale behind the efforts to allow nuclear subsidies as part of the modernization of EU state aid rules currently under way. With the buzzwords technology neutrality and cost effectiveness proponents of nuclear energy and fossil fuels try to undermine a transition towards a clean energy future for Europe.

Reframing the economic argument and reviving EU climate leadership

Concern is rising that the EU has lost its ability and willingness to lead the climate diplomacy and that competitiveness and security of supply is over-emphasized on the expense of sustainability. It is therefore crucial to stress that this line of argument falls short of the fact that competitiveness, security of supply and environment are not trade-offs.

A greater share of renewable energy will strengthen all of the EU’s major energy goals by increasing security of supply at lower prices, fostering the competitiveness of the European economy and facilitating sustainability. The pathway to a low carbon economy will create economic opportunities through employment, innovation, technology development and reduce dependence on fossil fuel imports. The Environment and Energy Ministers from six German Länder have just recently highlighted the benefits of a European energy transition for security of supply and cost effectiveness in their ‘Brussels Declaration’.

The EU’s decision on its climate and energy framework until 2030 will influence others around the world to follow suit in the run-up to the climate conference in Paris in 2015. The argument that Europe shouldn't go ahead on its own is widespread and used against EU climate leadership. This ignores the fact that other countries around the world are putting climate policies in place, as can be seen for example with the US emission limits for power plants and the emission trading pilot programs in China.

The EU Member States will meet in March 2014 to discuss climate and energy targets for 2030. If the European leaders are serious about addressing the climate crisis, they must send out a strong signal to other major economies in order to reach an ambitious and fair global climate deal in 2015.

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