Testing the Limits of European Ambitions on Emissions

New York Times 2014-12-01

Dec. 1 (New York Times) — The European Union has long been a world leader on climate change, and its new agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030 keeps it at the forefront of that effort. But experts question whether the plans European leaders have sketched out are strong enough to meet their ambitious goal, and even whether a 40 percent cut is enough to keep the Continent on track toward its longer-term target, an emissions cut of between 80 percent and 95 percent by mid-century.

Even as it presses ahead, Europe knows that it is only one piece of the climate puzzle, its emissions accounting for 13 percent of the world’s total. Like the U.S.-China deal announced in Beijing last month, the October agreement among Europe’s 28 national leaders was intended to give a push to global climate negotiations, which resume this week in Lima, Peru, and are to culminate in a major summit meeting in Paris next year.
“They’re aiming higher than almost anybody else,” said Gail Whiteman, climate change and sustainability professor at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, in the Netherlands. But concessions demanded by coal-dependent Poland significantly weakened the deal. “At some point, it doesn’t matter what the politics say, we’re going to walk into tipping points,” where climate changes spin out of control, “and that’s the problem,” she said.
Jonathan Grant, climate change director at PricewaterhouseCoopers in London, agreed that Europe’s commitment was ambitious, compared with those of other regions. But he said that while Europe had reduced its carbon intensity, a measure of how much carbon dioxide is emitted per unit of economic activity, by 2.5 percent in 2013, annual drops of 6 percent will be needed if the world is to have a chance at keeping warming to 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, considered the point at which catastrophic changes kick in.
“You basically need to see a revolution in all sectors of the economy to achieve and sustain that carbon intensity reduction,” he said. “Governments are still falling far short of what’s really required to achieve the 2 degree goal, including Europe. I don’t think there’s recognition of the scale of change that’s required.”
Europe appears on track to meet its current goal of cutting emissions 20 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. The 2030 agreement was reached after months of wrangling between coal-dependent eastern nations and others, like Germany and Sweden, who wanted a tougher plan.
As it is, the 40 percent target may not be firm. Under pressure from businesses and governments worried about global competitiveness, leaders agreed to reconsider their goal if other nations failed to make strong promises at the December 2015 United Nations climate meeting in Paris.
“There’s a deliberate ambiguity” about what Europe would do in those circumstances, said David Reiner, assistant director of the University of Cambridge’s Energy Policy Research Group.
“They’re quite vague about it, and it’s not entirely clear that if China and the U.S. and everybody else signs up in 2015, does that mean the E.U. might sign up to more than 40 percent? You could read it that way.”
“You could also read it that if we are the only ones, it’s not entirely clear we will set a tough, binding 40 percent target,” he added. “That to me is one of the big question marks.”
Others welcomed the possible way out. Alexandre Affre, director for industrial affairs at BusinessEurope, a powerful business alliance, said companies worried that they would take a hit if Europe moved alone. “If Europe remains the only one going so far, so quick,” he said, “for us it brings a real question of global level playing field for European industry. Which is why we keep saying this deal makes sense only if there is a meaningful global climate agreement.” He added: “If not, we think Europe should think again about this 40 percent and possibly revise down.”
Mr. Grant, of PricewaterhouseCoopers, said that European Union leaders took the economic concerns seriously, and that the
2030 framework was unlikely to have a major effect on competitiveness. Despite its shortcomings, the deal was a real achievement, Ms. Whiteman said. “Try to get 28 people agreeing on where to go for dinner — that’s just not easy,” she said.
It was doable in part because climate is a far less polarizing issue in Europe than in America, said Scott Barrett, natural resource economics professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.
“In terms of the understanding of the problem, the need to act, the faith in multi-lateralism, all of that is much stronger in Europe than the United States,” he said. “But the problem is that Europe alone cannot address the issue.”
Hopes of a strong international deal got a lift last month, when President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China announced a landmark emissions agreement. The U.S. promised to emit 26 percent to 28 percent less carbon dioxide in 2025 than in 2005, and China said its emissions would peak by 2030. The American carbon-cutting numbers use a different baseline year than Europe’s, so are not directly comparable.
Under Europe’s agreement, only the overall target, and not the goals of getting 27 percent of energy from renewable sources or improving efficiency by 27 percent, will be applied to nations individually. That is a shift from its 2020 framework, under which each nation was assigned its own goals in all three areas.
The efficiency target, derided by environmentalists as business as usual, is not binding. The renewable energy target is binding for the continent as a whole, but experts say it is unclear how it will be enforced.
“Every country can do what they want to do, some can be more ambitious than others, some won’t do anything,” said Brigitte Knopf, head of energy strategies research at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, in Germany.
Ms. Knopf said she feared “that we will have within Europe two different speeds of transformation,” with eastern countries shouldering much smaller emissions cuts than those in the West.
Others see the deal’s structure as a strength, arguing that it makes sense to let each country decide how to achieve its own emissions cuts under a simpler regulatory structure.
Most agree that Europe’s carbon-trading market, the Emissions Trading System, will be an essential tool, particularly in the absence of hard renewable targets that drive investment in solar, wind and other clean power sources. In its current form, the trading system is not up to that job, mainly because a glut of pollution permits has kept their price too low to make an impact.
“You really will need an effective and potentially quite significant carbon price” to reach the 40 percent goal, Mr.
Reiner said. Europe, he said, may not realize the difficulty of the task.
“There isn’t even an appreciation of just how challenging a
40 percent reduction target is, because 20 percent was so easy,”
with emissions falling since 1990 because of factors including a shift from coal to natural gas in some nations and years of recession. This time, he said, “it’s really going to have to be driven by climate policies, and that is a very different world.”