EU Looks Set To Rein In Climate Goals Amid Political Tussle

  • Date: 17/01/14
  • Vanessa Mock, The Wall Street Journal

The European Union’s self-styled reputation as an environmental crusader is likely to take a bruising next week, when it will publish climate and energy goals expected to fall short of those demanded by some of its member states.

The long-awaited package on cutting greenhouse-gas emissions from the European Commission was meant by its architects to set a shining example of environmental sensitivity to the world’s other major polluters ahead of a key round of United Nations climate-change talks in 2015.

But a bitter tug of war among the EU’s 28 governments, industry and environmentalists is threatening that quest—and the EU looks set to join industrialized countries such as Canada and Japan in reining in its green aspirations.

The EU’s executive will unveil its proposals Wednesday with two headline targets: one for reducing carbon-dioxide emissions and another for increasing the use of renewable energy, such as wind and solar. The goals are intended to help the EU meet its pledge to cut CO2 emissions by at least 80% by 2050, compared with 1990 levels, as part of a global climate-change accord.

As ever, the devil is in the detail. The only new binding target will be for CO2 emissions, where the commission will likely impose a reduction of up to 40% by 2030. The final percentage could slip to 35% in last-ditch negotiations. Either way, cuts will be needed beyond the 20% reduction mandated by 2020.

But the biggest shift will come in renewable energy targets. In 2008, the EU agreed on binding targets calling for renewable power to make up 20% of the region’s energy use by 2020. Now, for 2030, the commission intends to call for a maximum of 27% for the EU as a whole but make this a nonbinding goal on a national level, according to people familiar with the discussions.

That means that the new 2030 objective won’t be legally enforceable with EU sanctions. Nor will it be broken down into individual obligations for each country.

Austria, Portugal and Belgium have been among those clamoring for binding targets on renewable energy, arguing that without them, Europe can’t hope to make a further leap forward in developing green energy. Germany, which is closing down its nuclear reactors, has pushed hardest, and officials say is likely to keep pressing up until Wednesday.

Inevitably, the absence of a binding target for each country could lead to widely diverging energy policies across the EU. For instance, pro-nuclear Britain and France have already stated they intend to ramp up their use of atomic energy to meet the CO2 goals. That would put more pressure on countries committed to ambitious renewable energy targets, such as Germany, Belgium and Austria, to make up the shortfall for the EU as a whole.

The commission, facing lobbying pressure from all sides, has tried to forge a middle way. Some governments have demanded more leeway to determine their energy mix, while others want EU-wide targets to drive their own renewable policies at home. More broadly, enthusiasm for environmental initiatives has waned on the back of the bloc’s economic downturn, which has reduced carbon emissions anyway.

“The commission had looked on how it can get everyone on board, so it went for the lowest common denominator,” says Wende Trio, the director of CAN Europe, a network of environmental nongovernmental groups. “It’s disappointing that it’s not being braver and making proposals that will drive Europe forward.”

Some newer EU members, such as coal-dependent Poland, want nothing to do with such targets. Meanwhile, large utilities across the region have argued that hefty state subsidies for renewable energy have ramped up energy prices and made Europe less competitive. [...]

Once the proposals emerge, 28 governments will need to agree on them, and the European Parliament must give its blessing. Many in the Parliament have already signaled they want tougher targets. Next week is only the start of what’s likely to be a prolonged tussle.

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