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EU Climate Policy 'In Line' with 2050 Goal, but What Does that Mean?

Oliver Geden's picture
German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)

Dr. Oliver Geden (@oliver_geden) is Head of Research Division EU/Europe at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) (German Institute for International and Security Affairs) in Berlin.

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  • Apr 3, 2014

European Union Targets

European Union declarations on climate policy are usually full of carefully crafted paragraphs, suggesting political consensus where in fact significant differences prevail. Thus, it came as a surprise for many observers that the European Council – the regular summit of the 28 European heads of state and government –  has been able to conclude in March that a final decision on the EU’s energy and climate policy framework 2030 should be taken in October 2014.

Regarding the emissions reduction target, which will be at the core of a heated debate in the coming months, the 28 heads of state and government went even further. In order not to show up with empty hands at the so-called Ban-Ki Moon Summit in New York, the European Council came up with the following announcement: “In the light of the UN Climate Summit in September 2014 the specific EU target for 2030 for greenhouse gas emission reductions will be fully in line with the agreed ambitious EU objective for 2050”. [emphasis added]

The “fully in line” phrase is already gaining momentum, EU Commission President Barroso and Climate Commissioner Hedegaard were happy to use it in the initial statements on the European Council conclusions – and we should expect more to come. But what exactly is the “agreed EU 2050 objective”? And what would it mean to be “fully in line” with it? Well, that depends.

Different interpretations of EU 2050 objective

Many in Northern and Western Europe, in the Commission and all the environmental NGOs claim that the EU’s 2050 climate target is about reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95% (compared to 1990), as proposed in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report in 2007 (Working Group III). That would translate in a 2030 target of at least 40% unilaterally, the target that the EU Commission has introduced with its low-carbon roadmap in 2011 and which is also at the core of its January 2014 proposal for a new framework.

But Central and Eastern European (CEE) Member States interpret the 2050 climate target quite differently. In the European Council conclusions of October 2009, right before the Copenhagen Climate Summit, Poland managed to push through some provisions. Because of these, many CEE countries think that the EU 2050 objective is not a unilateral, but rather a conditional target.

The exact formula for the EU’s 2050 objective is quite complex. In its 2009 decision (reaffirmed in slightly different words in 2011), the European Council stated that it supports the EU’s goal “in the context of necessary reductions according to the IPCC by developed countries as a group, to reduce emissions by 80 to 95% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels.”

CEE countries tend to think that the 80-95% emissions reduction range would only become politically binding for the EU if the “group of developed countries” (defined as Annex I Parties to the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) really does act as a group, that is, if all of the developed countries agree to a corresponding level of ambitions – including Canada, Japan, Australia, Russia and the United States. In that sense, a 2030 climate target “fully in line with the agreed ambitious EU objective for 2050” would mean that agreement on a concrete target by October 2014 could only be made conditional on a positive outcome of the Paris Climate Summit in December 2015, with a review by European leaders in early 2016. And as everybody knows, CEE countries included, it’s already questionable that Paris will produce comparable commitments from other developed countries.

Evading substantial decisions

By using a highly ambiguous formula in last week’s European Council conclusions the 28 heads of state and government opted once again for evading a substantial decision on mid-term EU climate policy. But since the likely failure of the 2015 UN Climate Summit will strongly influence internal EU negotiations, European leaders eventually will have to answer a crucial question they have strenuously avoided up to now: What does it mean that the sluggish UN process has been unable to provide any convincing argument for drastic emissions reductions in Europe?

If international climate negotiations fail, does the EU want to give up on the project of a low-carbon economy? If not, what climate policies should be used to manage its implementation? Should the 80-95% emissions reduction target for 2050 be maintained as a unilateral one, while imposing significant carbon taxes on imports from countries without ambitious climate policies?Should the “targets-and-timetables” approach be modified by making the existing emissions reduction paths less ambitious? Or should the EU restrict itself to saying that the decarbonization of European economies is its ultimate goal and one the Member States should work toward continuously – but without stating what progress has to be achieved well in advance of 2030 or 2050? In a nutshell: What’s missing in EU Climate policy is a serious political debate.

A third way between “targets and timetables” and “muddling through”

Avoiding this political debate only leads to massive inconsistencies in EU energy and climate policy. While talking and deciding in terms of “targets and timetables”, EU actions are largely following the usual “muddling through” approach. But it’s an illusion to think that we will ever be able to create a perfectly consistent long-term transformation program for the energy sector. Inconsistencies between policy discourse, decisions, and implementation are a defining feature of everyday political life: they allow governments to address the widely disparate and conflicting concerns of diverse stakeholder groups and constituencies.

This may help to explain why a rigid transformation concept that is based on the assumption of consistent political action over the course of four decades is extraordinarily susceptible to failure. The realization that the EU energy and climate policy negotiations run the risk of ending in a stalemate over the 2030 policy framework should therefore provide an impetus to consider new models of governance for an energy and climate policy with a long-term orientation – a third way between “targets and timetables” and “muddling through”.

Photo Credit: EU and 2050 Targets/shutterstock

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