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Opinion: EU abandons stance as climate leader

Irene Quaile
October 24, 2014

The EU has lowered its climate targets. It's a very worrying signal, says DW climate correspondent Irene Quaile, and reason for arguing that the EU has lost its position as climate leader.

Europaflaggen vor dem Hauptquartier der Europäischen Kommission in Brüssel
Image: Reuters/Y. Herman

The figures are anything but ambitious. By 2030, the EU wants to reduce its CO2 emissions by 40 percent on 1990, to increase the share of renewable energy to 27 percent and to increase its energy efficiency by 27 percent. With this weak compromise, the EU loses any claim it might have had to being a leader in combating climate change.

Environment groups say 55, 45 and 40 respectively are the targets that would be necessary if Europe is to make its due contribution to limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius. But such ambitious figures were never on the agenda. Germany and others argued for a binding minimum increase of 30 percent in energy efficiency and a 30 percent renewables target. But the heads of state and government had their work cut out even to reach an agreement on lower targets.

Irene Quaile
Quaile: a disappointing outcomeImage: DW

Given the figures agreed, it is hard to imagine how the EU wants to achieve its longer-term climate goals. By 2050, its greenhouse gas emissions are supposed to be reduced by 80 percent. That would mean an additional 40 percent within just ten years. At the same time, the Commission assumes renewable energies will already account for an energy share of 25 percent by 2020. So then that number is only meant to two percent more in the next ten years?

Economic growth ahead of climate protection

Industrial interests have won out. Coal and energy-intensive industries like steel have lobbied successfully. Too many measures to protect the climate could damage economic development and make European countries less competitive, was the message doing the rounds in the run-up to the EU climate summit. Yet investment in climate protection and renewables can create jobs and provide new export opportunities. And the latest figures show that even that most frightening of competitors - China - is reducing its use of coal. For the first time in decades, the country's coal consumption has virtually stopped increasing.

Poland, which relies on coal for 90 percent of its electricity, successfully put the brakes on the EU's climate policy. This shows some of the weaknesses of the EU's structures. With regard to energy and climate policy, not only the overall framework, but every single proposal by the EU Commission has to be agreed on unanimously by the Council of Ministers. That meant Poland could threaten to veto any decision and derail ambitious proposals from Germany and others.

Merkel and Hollande
Merkel and Hollande are pushing for higher targetsImage: Reuters/Christian Hartmann

Yet Poland has had plenty of time to realize coal is bad for the climate and has to be replaced. And the country's insistence on limiting energy efficiency goals is completely illogical. Better insulation and other energy-saving measures are good for the climate - and the economy, no matter what source of energy is used.

Europe can do better

Even if the EU is only responsible for ten percent of the world's emissions, it could send out a key signal to the top emitters, China and the US, as well as the rest of the world. Europe could show that the transition to renewable energy is not a barrier to economic growth. On the contrary: It provides new opportunities and is ultimately the most economical option.

Germany's Chancellor Merkel argued hard for higher targets at the Brussels meeting. At the same time the energy transition at home has been slowed down due to pressure from industry. Berlin still has to do its homework to achieve its own climate targets. Nevertheless, by comparison with many of her EU-partners, Germany is looking good.

France will be hosting the key UN climate conference in 2015, where a revamped world climate treaty is to be negotiated. President Francois Hollande has made this one of his top priorities. But if other countries follow the example Europe has set with these targets, he is in for a difficult time. And without an effective treaty with targets that are both ambitious and binding, the world will continue on course for a temperature rise of at least four degrees Celsius. That would be disastrous - not just for Europe.

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