The EU’s energy commissioner, Günther Oettinger, has spoken out against a planned 40% cut in CO2 emissions across the EU by 2030, just a week after he helped to launch the policy.

Speaking at an ‘Industry Matters’ conference in Brussels, Oettinger said those who expected the cut to “save the world” were “arrogant or stupid”, and publicly questioned whether the reduction was even achievable.

“It’s an ambitious compromise and I am a little bit sceptical,” he told delegates at the conference, organised by the pan-European employers' confederation BusinessEurope.

“I have to be constructive as I’m a member of the team but I’m sceptical.”

The energy commissioner, who argued for a lesser 35% goal behind the scenes, said the EU was only on track to cut emissions 20% by the decades's end because of economic crisis and the closure of soviet-era plants in Eastern Europe.

“These were low-hanging fruits but there are no more now, so every percentage going down gets more difficult and cost-intensive,” he said. The EU was just responsible for 10.6% of global emissions today, a sum that would fall to 4.5% by 2030, he noted.

“To think that with this 4.5% of global emissions you can save the world is not realistic,” Oettinger said. “It is arrogant or stupid. We need a global commitment.”

The EU’s proposed 2030 package will now be discussed at a European summit of EU heads of state in March, before a new proposal is revealed in September, three months before an international climate summit meets in Lima, Peru.

A final package should then be agreed before July 2015, ahead of a climate summit in Paris that is supposed to forge a binding global agreement.

As well as addressing climate issues, Oettinger, a Christian Democrat from Germany, said that in the long-term Europe might import gas from Iraq, Nigeria, Libya and Qatar.

Shale gas 'pioneers'

He hailed the UK and Poland as cheap energy “pioneers” for their efforts to exploit shale gas and said that perhaps the US could export some of its shale here.

“Europe is on the way to deindustrialise and the US has a different strategy,” he said.

Oettinger’s speech did not chime with the Commission’s own recent ‘Trends to 2050’ analysis which forecast a 32% CO2 cut by 2030 under a business-as-usual scenario.

Environmentalists say that including surplus carbon allowances under the EU Emissions Trading System would take this figure to 40% without additional efforts. Friends of the Earth spokesman Brook Riley dubbed Oettinger’s remarks “utter nonsense”.

As a whole, the EU sees a strong commitment to cutting greenhouse gases as key to persuading other countries to make similar pledges.

'Consistently wrong'

EurActiv understands that some of Oettinger’s colleagues reacted to his speech with laughter. “It is pretty outrageous,” one EU source said, “but it is how he has been behaving.”

“He has been consistent through this whole process,” the source added. “Unfortunately, he has been consistently wrong.”

Maria Van der Hoeven, the executive director of the International Energy Agency implicitly criticized a lack of focus on energy efficiency in the EU’s climate package. Energy savings should play a “central role” in any pragmatic strategy to reduce emissions, she said.

“The EU can foster investment in renewable energies and interconnections and support indigenous resource development, including from shale gas, but the key to adapting to higher energy prices in the longer term will be energy efficiency,” van den Hoeven told the conference.

“Efficiency can lower demand and affect relative competitiveness and market development,” she added.

Polish welcome

But the commissioner’s rallying call was welcomed by Henryka Bochniarz, president of the Polish employers’ federation Lewiatan, who said that she did not usually feel very comfortable with EU bureaucrats but Oettinger’s missive was “what we have been lacking in the past”.

Emma Marcegaglia the president of BusinessEurope, Europe's employers association also backed Oettinger, saying that the 40% greenhouse gas target would only be seen as realistic if a global deal was signed at the UN climate conference in Paris.

“We must make sure we are not once again a lone frontrunner without followers, as has happened before,” she said.

Oettinger’s speech was a keynote part of a BusinesEurope conference, which launched a series of policy calls, including:

  • Strengthened competitiveness in energy and climate policy by avoiding carbon leakage, setting realistic targets and expanding shale gas production
  • Making labour markets more flexible by more consideration of employers’ needs
  • Opening foreign markets through trade deals such as TTIP with the US
  • Improving business access to finance

Speakers at the event including the EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso, the speaker of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, and the industry commissioner Antonio Tajani, all of whom praised the platform.

Tajani noted that the EU CO2 reduction target still had to be approved by the EU's 28 member states and said that no new ‘carbon leakage’ rules would be applied on businesses before 2021 under the bloc’s new climate and energy package.

“This is a good message for a company,” he said.

The Greek prime minister, Antonis Samaras, said his country was “being transformed from a red tape economy to a red carpet economy for foreign investors”.

“Whatever the weather we have to move together,” Schulz told the assembled delegates, summing up a mood that coalesced around the need to relax EU regulations and weaken collective bargaining rights.