VILNIUS—The failure by heads of state and government of the European Union member nations to agree, at a recent European Council meeting, on renewed climate goals for 2020 to 2030 came under a hail of criticism from environmentalists and energy investors. Not only is Europe ceding its vanguard in the battle against climate change, critics say, but it has retreated a step in preparation to adopting a new global climate deal.
Last January, the European Commission proposed new climate goals for Europe to achieve by 2030: cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent compared to 1990 levels; generating at least 27 percent of energy from renewable energy sources (later in February the European Parliament voted for increasing the share of renewables to 30 percent); and raising energy efficiency levels by 40 percent.
The European Council was expected to adopt these targets at a March 20-21 meeting so that the EU could then submit its new obligations at a UN climate change summit to take place next September in New York, as part of the global effort to hammer out the world’s new climate deal.
The future climate agreement is to replace the outgoing Kyoto Protocol, extended until 2020, and is expected to be signed at the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP 21), in Paris in 2015.
European leaders, however, split over committing to the new targets: Thirteen Western European states – including Germany, France, and Great Britain – have been urging their counterparts to approve the European Commission’s proposal, a step that would help influence other nations and push them toward developing their own climate obligations in the run-up to the next round of negotiations on the new global climate deal. But Eastern European nations that depend on the carbon-intensive coal – in particular, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary – insisted that Europe should wait until statements on national climate pledges come from the United States and China.
As a result, Reuters reported, citing a draft document of the March meeting, the European Council decided to “take stock of progress made on these issues at its meeting in June … with a view to taking a final decision on the new policy framework as quickly as possible and no later than October 2014.”
Former UNFCCC executive secretary: ‘staggeringly nonsensical’
Former UNFCCC executive secretary Yvo De Boer, who now heads the Seoul-based international Global Green Growth Institute, called the argumentation for the delay “staggeringly nonsensical” in one of his Twitter messages. “How to make yourself irrelevant in one easy step,” the tweet said.
“Delaying a decision till October for US/China news scheduled for spring 2015 is difficult to understand,” he wrote in a follow-up message.
Earlier in March, the Green Growth Group – an informal association of energy, climate, and environment ministers of thirteen European states – called on the European Council to “agree on the core elements of a climate and energy framework for 2030” at the upcoming meeting in Brussels.
“A delay risks undermining commercial sector confidence, deferring critical energy investments, increasing the cost of capital for these investments, and undermining momentum towards a global climate deal,” the March 3 statement by the Green Growth Group ministers said.
But even the issue of energy independence – in particular, from gas supplies from Russia – which took center stage owing to the crisis in Ukraine and the souring of Europe’s relations with Moscow, proved insufficient to propel EU nations to action.
The European Council, said a European Voice report, found little agreement beyond calling on the European Commission to come forward, by the June European Council meeting, with a roadmap toward European energy independence. The Central and Eastern European countries, anxious that they may fall deeper into dependence on energy supplies from Russia if they adopt new climate obligations, insisted that only after this roadmap has been reviewed can discussions on 2030 targets take place – despite attempts by the UK to convince them that setting targets will in fact spur investment in their own domestic energy sources, the report said.
Lack of commitment vexes investors
The delay came as a bitter disappointment to investor representatives, who believe a lack of a dedicated climate policy in Europe hurts investments into clean energy.
“Investors cannot plan complex, long-term investments on the basis of proposals alone. They need policies in place. New energy investment is crucial to securing Europe’s energy security and measures which deliver this investment should be a priority for EU policymakers. Delay will also make it more difficult for Europe to play a leadership role at the UN global climate summit in September,” said Stephanie Pfeifer, Chief Executive of the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change, which unites 88 of Europe’s largest investors with a total worth of €7.5 trillion.
“Investors will need to see a real sense of urgency and an ambitious climate agreement in the coming months if they are to be re-assured that the EU is committed to a low-carbon future,” Pfeifer said.
Drowned out in the energy independence debate in Brussels were not just the concerns of investors and urging on the part of environment and energy ministers, but also the call to action from numerous environmental organizations that had hoped for prompt adoption of the new climate goals proposed by the European Commission.
“It is beyond belief that the EU has delayed a decision on urgent climate action. After all, discussions have been ongoing for months already while climate impacts continue to mount across Europe,” said Wendel Trio, Director of Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe, in a CAN Europe press release. “With freak weather events already creating massive economic fallout and disrupting lives all over Europe, our leaders need to pick up the pace on climate action, not kick decisions down the road.”
EU’s agenda not strong enough as it is, environmentalists say
Moreover, environmental campaign groups warn that the 40 percent emissions reduction target proposed by the European Commission may fall short of what the world needs to stay safely below the critical 2 degree temperature increase. Crossing that threshold, climate scientists believe, will hurl the planet beyond the global warming point of no return.
A February briefing paper published by WWF said the European Commission “has offered unacceptably weak options” and that its 2030 framework for climate and energy policies – among other points of criticism raised by WWF – “fails to recognize recent science on the urgent need to tackle climate change” and “effectively caps the potential of renewable energy and energy efficiency.”
Meanwhile, according to scientists’ bleak forecasts, Europe is bound to face more catastrophic effects of climate change in the coming decades. For instance, The Independent cites findings from a new study published in Nature Climate Change that show the frequency of severe flooding across Europe is set to double by 2050, with the average economic costs caused by floods in the EU likely to grow almost fivefold – from an estimated 4.9 billion euro a year between 2000 and 2012 to about 23.5 billion euro by 2050.
The UK, in particular – which has just endured a spate of devastating floods last winter – will have to brace itself for a rise in floods, heat waves, and coastal storms, the British academic Neil Adger, one of the authors of the II Working Group’s contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report, said at the report’s launch in Japan’s Iokohama last Monday, The Telegraph reported.
Environmental organizations support 55 percent in emissions reduction by 2030 and raising the share of renewables in energy production to 45 percent. Such are, for instance, WWF’s demands for 2030 stated in its February briefing paper, along with at least 40 percent less energy use than in 2005. These also mirror the binding targets advocated by CAN Europe.
Earlier in February, Lithuanian ecological NGOs presented in the Ministry of Environment their position on the new climate targets that the country and other EU nations should adopt for 2030.
“The NGOs’ position is, obviously, more ambitious. It is based on scientific findings,” Grynas quoted (in Lithuanian) Gintarė Jonušauskaitė, a climate change expert with the Baltic Environmental Forum (BEF), as saying. The BEF Group, founded in 1995 by the Baltic ministries of environment, Germany, and the European Commission, as a technical assistance project to strengthen cooperation among the Baltic environmental authorities, is now a network of member NGOs in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Germany, and St. Petersburg, Russia.
“Scientists believe that our time is running out: In the past twenty years of negotiations the amount of emissions has only grown by 60 percent, even as it should have been decreasing rapidly. This is an unacceptable process,” said Jonušauskaitė.
One of the reasons impeding a drastic reduction in emissions, in environmentalists’ view, is the existing carbon emissions trading system.
“The system has accumulated a huge excess of emissions quotas, to a combined worth of 2 billion euro, which leads to very low prices. The low prices, in turn, hinder investment into measures aimed at emissions reduction,” Jonušauskaitė explained.
How could Lithuania contribute?
Environmentalists believe Lithuania has enough energy efficiency and renewable energy potential to fulfil the targets they propose and deem it incongruous that this potential has not yet been put to use.
In Europe, renewable energy comes to only 13 percent of the total energy produced, while in Lithuania, the share of renewables in the energy sector totals 22 percent. Thus, what remains for the EU a future target – 20 percent of renewables by 2020 – is already an accomplished goal in this Baltic country, and not only should Vilnius move forward, environmentalists believe, but it should aim for a stimulating 50 percent rather than the European Commission’s 27 percent.
On February 20, a symbolic action was organized in front of the environment ministry in the country’s capital, urging the Lithuanian government to commit to more ambitious climate obligations. Environmentalists say it is time Lithuania shed the image of a poor little nation well behind the ranks of the world’s big polluters – a position it has conveniently rested on since 2004, only taking an active interest in climate negotiations when emissions standards were at risk of being lowered.
“The environment minister takes every opportunity to mention how important it is for global temperature rise not to exceed two degrees. On the other hand, he’s always pointing out that the European Union only accounts for 12 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. It sounds as if, until there is a global [climate] deal, neither the EU, nor Lithuania need do anything,” says (in Lithuanian) Lithuania’s environmental movement Association Žali.lt coordinator Martynas Norbutas. “We say: Let’s stop looking around, we must make our own decision.”
Quotes that originally appeared in Lithuanian have been translated into English from the Russian version of this report, published on Bellona on March 31. This article was written by Galina Raguzina and translated by Maria Kaminskaya.