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EU weakens on climate?

Nina Haase, BrusselsJanuary 17, 2014

Germany has criticized EU plans to drop binding targets for renewables and energy efficiency. A leaked document says the bloc will focus on cutting emissions but other climate protection measures will be rolled back.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The EU has often prided itself on being at the forefront of climate protection. The EU's European Environment Agency stresses on its website: "Climate change is happening now: […] We expect that these changes will continue, and that extreme weather events resulting in hazards such as floods and droughts will become more frequent and intense."

That's why, by 2020, the EU currently aims to achieve three binding goals: cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent compared to 1990 levels, raise the share of renewable energy sources to 20 percent and improve energy efficiency by 20 percent.

Recent news about the EU Commission's plans regarding its energy policy for the period until 2030, however, has raised doubts about its role as a leader in climate protection. Environmental protection campaigners call the plans a step backward. "I think what's likely to come out is going to be entirely insufficient to tackle climate change," Tara Connelly, climate policy expert with non-governmental organization Greenpeace, told DW in an interview. "We're very disappointed."

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso in empty committee room (Photo: GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images)
Reports say European Commission President José Manuel Barroso is against binding targets for renewablesImage: Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images

'Move away from ambition'

The Commission had initially planned to present its climate change and energy goals to the public next Wednesday (22.01.2014). But leaked draft documents have caused a debate ahead of the release. Environmental protection groups are particularly concerned that the Commission is likely to drop binding targets for increasing the amount of renewable energy available in the EU's energy system. "We're looking at a carbon reduction target of possibly 40 percent, a non-binding renewables target of something maybe less than 30 percent and no efficiency target," said Tara Connelly. "This is a move away from the ambition that we had for the 2020 targets."

Alongside climate protection groups, two German ministers issued a statement on Wednesday calling for an ambitious framework for the period until 2030. "That implies a clear and binding EU target to expand renewable sources of energy by 2030," German minister of economics Sigmar Gabriel and German environment minister Barbara Hendricks wrote. The pair were reacting to reports which suggested that the EU Commission plans to drop binding targets for green electricity and energy efficiency.

Germany and seven other EU countries had already written a letter to the Commission in December, asking for a renewable energy target in addition to a carbon reduction target. Most of the signatories, including Germany, have since clarified that they support legally binding targets.

UK and Poland

But a number of EU countries have also come out against fixed goals for the expansion of renewable energy and for energy savings by 2030. Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron wrote a letter to Commission President José Manuel Barroso before the Christmas break, asking the Commission "to simplify the existing targets regime from three to one." Britain has also expressed interest in expanding their nuclear power industry.

Coal mine in Belchatov, Poland (Photo:AFP PHOTO / DAREK REDOS)
The renewables sector is growing in Europe, but Poland continues to favor coalImage: Darek Redos/AFP/Getty Images

Meanwhile, the Polish government does not want any 2030 targets at all, says Tara Connelly from Greenpeace. "In Poland, they have a lot of coal they want to use," the climate expert told DW, adding that "they see that more ambitious climate policy coming from Europe may stop them from doing that."

Many countries in the EU are currently rethinking their own energy mix, said Connelly – even France, traditionally a staunch supporter of nuclear power. French President Francois Hollande announced plans to reduce the share of nuclear to half, but Connelly points out "that of course begs the question of what the other half is going to be".

Renewables grew in crisis

The Commission plans will not only face opposition from some member states. The European Parliament's environment and energy committees have already voted in favor of three binding targets on emissions, renewable energy and energy efficiency in 2030. But after the vote, Holger Krahmer, a German Liberal MEP, published a statement saying the mistakes of the past would be repeated. "Simultaneous binding targets for climate protection, energy efficiency and renewable energy are in conflict, causing unnecessary economic costs and putting the already faltering European industry on a leash."

Some business leaders have come out against making the 2030 renewable energy target binding, arguing that action on climate and building out renewables is the opposite of economic development. But Tara Connelly rejects these claims. "In fact, what we've seen is that in the depth of an economic crisis, the renewable sector is one of the few sectors that is really booming, with over one million jobs created in this sector in Europe during the crisis." That development would only continue if investors have certainty, she stressed. "Binding targets will send a clear signal to investors: Yes, Europe is open for business on renewables and that they should come here and they should invest."

Nuclear power station Sizewell B in Suffolk, Britain (Photo: dpa/EPA/BRITISH ENERGY GROUP)
Britain is all for nuclear power - delivered from FranceImage: picture alliance/dpa

But even the binding goals on carbon emission reduction could be watered down. The German government supports the EU's Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard in her push to table the target for carbon emission reduction at 40 percent, compared to 1990 levels. But not all of her colleagues agree. According to Greenpeace, German Energy Commissioner Günter Oettinger favors a less ambitious 35 percent cut.

On Friday, Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenskilde wouldn't comment on any potential division within the college of 28 EU commissioners. She told journalists that "the preparations are going well, but the college will make its final decision next Wednesday."

Once proposed by the Commission, the plans will be up for discussion at a summit of EU leaders in March.