Weeny, weedy, weaky: the EU's new climate plan

| 22nd January 2014
Danish offshore wind turbine, Burbo Bank. Photo: Danish Wind Industry Association via Flickr.com.
Danish offshore wind turbine, Burbo Bank. Photo: Danish Wind Industry Association via Flickr.com.
Europe's new targets for carbon emissions and renewable energy are severely retrograde and fly in the face of both science and economics. They will endanger climate and retard the renewable energy revolution.
The UK has gained the right to trail the rest of Europe on renewable energy - and let all the economic gains go to Germany, Denmark and other high ambition countries.

The European Commission has outlined plans for the EU's climate and energy policy until 2030.

These include a mandatory 40% reduction in carbon emissions from 1990 levels and a target for 27% of EU energy supplies to be from renewable sources.

The emissions target applies at a national level and is to be met "through domestic measures alone".

There is no provision for countries to cross-trade emissions reductions in excess of national targets via the EU's Emissions Trading System (EU-ETS) - raising questions about the future of the EU-ETS, the world's biggest carbon market.

No national targets on renewables

However the renewables targets will apply to Europe as a whole with no fixed national targets.

According to the plan, "Attainment of the EU renewables target would be ensured by the new governance system based on national energy plans."

There are as yet no details of the 'new governance system' or how it will operate, but it appears certain to allow countries with low ambition on renewable energy - like the UK and Poland - to avoid taking any significant steps to advance renewable generation.

Climate dangers ignored

The target to reduce emissions by 40% by 2030 also looks dangerously weak and lacking in ambition - and has no scientific basis. Recent IPCC reports have made it clear that far more aggressive and rapid emissions cuts are needed to preserve an equable global climate.

"We say 40% is really dangerously low", said Brook Riley from Friends of the Earth. "This goal means there's about fifty-fifty chance of going over 2 degrees of global warming."

Sven Harmeling of CARE commented: "The Commission's proposal ignores the severity of the most recent warnings from scientists about the increasing scale and pace of climate change and the need to keep global warming to below 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

"It flies in the face of what progressive business, civil society and concerned citizens are asking for and fails to recognise the many positive global and domestic benefits of strong climate action."

No effort needed

The EU's existing emissions target - a 20% reduction by 2012 - was reached in 2012 with virtually no effort at all and with a very low carbon price of just a few euros per tonne in the EU-ETS. The same is likely to apply to the new 40% target.

This low carbon price has allowed the EU's coal burn in power stations to soar, displacing more expensive natural gas and undermining the viability of renewables. Economists accept that a carbon price of around €30 per tonne of CO2 is needed to drive long term investment in low carbon technologies.

Ivan Scrase of RSPB commented: "A dangerous gulf is opening up between the reality of climate change, which threatens to cause huge suffering and drive many species into extinction, and European leaders' commitment to tackling it."

The UK has gained the right to trail the rest of Europe on renewable energy - and let all the economic gains go to Germany, Denmark and other high ambition countries.

A win for fracking and nuclear power

The UK Government was on the side of the angels on the emissions argument, urging a 50% emissions reduction. But it also argued for a "technology-neutral" approach to meeting the emissions cuts - undermining ambition on renewable energy and avoiding binding national targets.

This reflects the Government's firm preference for nuclear power irrespective of the price, and its ambition to build as many as 50 nuclear reactors amounting to 75GW of power. 

It also gives comfort to the fracking industry - in which the Government has unwavering faith to be a major supplier of natural gas to burn in homes, industry and power stations. It believes that cheap fracked gas will displace higher-carbon coal generation, both reducing emissions and lowering power prices.

So the much lower target for renewables - 27% - than for emissions reductions - 40% - represents a victory for the UK Government's its pro-nuclear and pro-fracking stance. The UK will also be able to negotiate its own renewables target will below that 27% level.

However environmentalists believe the strategy is flawed. Ivan Scrase of RSPB commented:

"The UK has pushed for weak regulation of shale gas drilling, which threatens to undermine climate goals. And the UK has blocked introduction of a renewable energy target that is binding on member states for the period after 2020.

"But achieving deep cuts in emissions will be much harder with more fracking and less renewables."

Hedegaard: a significant advance

The EU's climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard brushed off the criticism, claiming that the 40% target was a significant advance given Europe's poor economic climate.

"A 40% emissions reduction is the most cost-effective target for the EU and it takes account of our global responsibility. If all other regions were equally ambitious about tackling climate change, the world would be in significantly better shape."

However the argument is a contradictory one - the main reason that Europe's emissions have fallen in recent years is precisely the reduced level of economic activity.

Any economic boom, far from making it easier to achieve emissions reductions, would only drive increases in demand for fossil fuels.

The UK renewables industry 'disappointed'

The Renewable Energy Association is "disappointed by the lack of ambition for renewable energy in the European Commission's proposed 2030 energy and climate change framework."

It believes that the existing 2020 targets have been key to the recent growth in renewables - and have been particularly valuable when negative rhetoric from Ministers has damaged market confidence in the UK. REA Chief Executive Dr Nina Skorupska said:

"Experience shows that binding renewables targets do two things: First, they give a major long-term boost to investor confidence, helping accelerate market growth and technology cost reduction.

"Second, politics frequently trumps economics in the real world, and when politicians go wobbly on renewables, the targets help keep investment flowing.

"Our initial impression is that an EU-wide renewables target, without binding targets for specific Member States, will only give very limited impetus for expanding renewables in the UK."

Solar future?

Leonie Greene  of the Solar Trade Association is also concerned about the slowing down of renewables deployment:

"From a climate perspective Europe needs to expedite, not slow, renewables deployment. From an economic perspective weakening ambition is nonsensical given the massive investments in renewables our international competitors are making.

"The 27% renewables target is no more than the Commission expects under business as usual, so the Council and Parliament must improve this significantly if it's to have any meaningful effect.

"Solar is likely to need no public support in the next decade, but a target will provide the whole renewables industry with the confidence to invest for strong expansion going forwards.

"Now under this pan-EU target approach, we are likely to see a scenario where countries like Germany that take a long term perspective continue to strongly back their renewables industry into the next decade, while we fall even further behind."

The UK's right to come last

In other words the UK has gained the right to trail the rest of Europe on renewable energy - and let all the economic gains go to Germany, Denmark and other high ambition countries.

So not so much a case of "Veni, vidi, vici" as "Weeny, weedy, weaky". With victories like this, who needs defeats?



Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.

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