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European Commission Dampens Climate Ambitions

22 January 2014 5:15 pm
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Blowing in the wind. The commission scrapped the idea of a binding target for the share of wind power and other renewables in member countries' energy mix.

London Array/Wikimedia Commons

Blowing in the wind. The commission scrapped the idea of a binding target for the share of wind power and other renewables in member countries' energy mix.

BRUSSELS—Toning down its environmental zeal of years past, the European Commission has proposed today to ax binding, national targets for the share of renewable sources in each member state's energy mix after 2020. The move is part of the commission's new energy and climate plans for 2030, which also include a 40% cut in carbon emissions compared with 1990 levels—much less than what environmental groups had lobbied for.

The plan is a follow-up to the so-called 20-20-20 package, a set of bold measures for 2020 presented in 2007 that made the European Union a leader in the fight against global warming. Seven years and an economic crisis later, the commission hopes its 2030 plans will again shape the next global climate talks. But this time, environmental groups slammed the proposals as too weak to curb global warming and lead policy change worldwide.

“This is essentially business-as-usual and a far cry from the halcyon days of the EU's self-heralded climate change leadership,” said Bas Eickhout, a Green member of the European Parliament from the Netherlands, in a statement today.

But the commission defended its proposals as a sound compromise between environmental and economic concerns. Climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard, who presented the plans today alongside European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Energy Commissioner Günther Öttinger, sounded a positive note. “If other big economies followed our example […], the world would be a better place,” Hedegaard said.

Industry is mostly enthusiastic as well. “This package puts us on the right path to delivering a competitive, low-carbon future,” said Katja Hall, chief policy director at the United Kingdom's business lobby CBI, in a statement. "An emissions reduction target of 40% is ambitious and credible, and reflects what we have been calling for.”

Eickhout says the commission's proposals reflect deep divisions among the European Union's 28 member states on energy policy. For example, Germany has pledged to abandon nuclear energy and to push renewables, while the United Kingdom and Poland are rooting for fossil fuels. The commission “has been working towards the lowest common denominator” to earn member states' approval, Eickhout tells ScienceInsider.

Under its 2030 proposal, the commission proposes that 27% of the European Union's total energy consumption should come from renewable sources, up from the current 20% target for 2020—but it stops short of making that target binding for individual countries. This would leave some “flexibility for Member States to transform the energy system in a way that is adapted to national preferences and circumstances,” the commission said in a statement. The commission will monitor efforts to improve energy systems, including research spending.

But it remains unclear how the E.U.-wide target will be enforced and who will be accountable. Environmental groups are concerned that if left to their own devices, cash-strapped member states won't do much to boost the deployment of renewable energy technology and lower their dependence on fossil fuels. Mahi Sideridou, managing director of Greenpeace EU—which had called for a 45% target, binding on member states—said in a statement today that the commission's plan “would knock the wind out of a booming renewables industry.”

In parallel to the renewables target, the commission proposes to cut Europe's carbon emissions by 40% by 2030 compared with 1990 levels, up from the existing 20% reduction goal for 2020. According to the commission's own impact assessment, the union is on track to meet the current target: Under a “business-as-usual” scenario, total greenhouse gas emissions are already expected to drop by 24% in 2020 and 32% in 2030 compared with 1990 levels.

Again, green groups and scientists have criticized the commission's 40% proposal as insufficient to limit global warming to a temperature increase of 2ºC—which is widely considered as the threshold above which climate change would cause severe effects; Greenpeace, for instance, had hoped for a 55% reduction. “The 40% target is the death knell of 2ºC,” says Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the United Kingdom.

In another controversial move, the commission shied away from issuing binding legislation on shale gas. Instead, it proposed “minimum principles”—nonbinding environmental guidelines for member states that want to explore and exploit shale gas reserves using hydraulic fracking methods. Some E.U. countries, including the United Kingdom, are eager to tap into the new resource to catch up with other nations such as the United States. Others are more guarded: France, for example, has banned fracking, citing concerns for human health and the environment.

The commission's proposals will now be discussed with member states and the European Parliament. The commission hopes to have a final plan ready ahead of the United Nations climate talks, to be held in Paris in December 2015.