Breaking the glass ceiling of EU climate policy

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

The European Commission's 2050 climate roadmap was presented in 2011, before the Paris Agreement. [UNclimatechange / Flickr]

The request from EU leaders to see an update of the European Commission’s 2050 low-carbon roadmap mandates a higher level of ambition from Europe on meeting climate goals also in 2030, writes Brook Riley.

Brook Riley is a public affairs attaché at Rockwool, a world leader in building insulation.

Times they are a-changin’. Last week, EU leaders told the European Commission to come up by the first quarter of 2019 with a strategy to cut greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Climate Agreement.

At a stroke, this shatters the biggest glass ceiling in the world of EU climate and energy policy: the notion that the current 2050 climate roadmap is adequate and in line with current science.

The roadmap dates to 2011. In it, the Commission laid out a pathway for emission cuts in the EU: -40% by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels), -60% by 2040 and -80% by 2050.

These milestones – and especially the 40% by 2030 target – have driven the EU’s climate and energy policies, including the Emissions Trading System, the Effort Sharing Regulation, the Energy Efficiency and Renewables Directives. Therefore if the greenhouse gas target is not ambitious enough, the laws developed to meet it will not be fit for purpose either.

EU leaders take Brussels to task over 2050 low-carbon roadmap

EU leaders have urged the European Commission to come forward with a 2050 climate strategy “by the first quarter of 2019”, ending speculation over the timing of the proposal.

The Paris Agreement has brought the issue to the surface. The 2050 climate roadmap was presented as Europe’s contribution towards limiting global warming to 2°C  – though in fact, the assumptions in the roadmap implied a very high probability of exceeding the 2°C  threshold.

But Paris unites signatories around a ‘well below’ 2°C target and a commitment to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C, to try to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

This sounds alarming: Europe must deliver steeper emission cuts to stay within a much tougher temperature threshold. But in reality, it is a blessing in disguise. The problem in EU decision-making circles over the past years has not been figuring out how to do more, but accepting that more needs to be done.

During the Barroso presidency, the Commission seemed set on defending the roadmap and the figure of 40% at almost any cost. This is partially understandable: the Commission had written the roadmap and was responsible for the background analysis and assumptions.

But Barroso and his advisers appeared to have convinced themselves that, post-Crisis, member states would never accept anything higher. So much so that the 40% target became a self-imposed cap, holding other policies back and forcing them into a kind of surreal competition for the right to deliver emissions cuts (insiders called this ‘policy cannibalisation’).

For example, already in 2014, it was clear that a more ambitious energy efficiency target for 2030 would be cost-effective and would bring big socio-economic benefits – and more emissions cuts. But the ‘stick at 40%’ position pitted climate and energy policymakers against each other.

There was bitter opposition from ETS advocates, on the grounds that higher-than-expected emissions cuts from efficiency would cause the carbon price to collapse. When modelling more ambitious efficiency scenarios, the Commission even added coal to the energy mix, to ‘compensate’ for steeper emissions cuts.

While all this stretches credulity, it is also now a cause for real hope. The fundamental point was always that the EU could relatively easily achieve more than 40% emissions cuts with a well-organised combination of energy efficiency, renewables, carbon pricing and other policies. What was missing was the political will to challenge the outdated roadmap and sell the case for higher ambition.

This is why EU leaders’ call for a new strategy is so important. It mandates higher ambition. And it is landing on fertile ground. In January, the European Parliament voted for a net-zero emissions goal for 2050, and for binding 35% by 2030 targets for energy efficiency and renewables. These translate into about 50% emissions cuts by 2030.

Commissioner Arias Cañete, so criticised at first for his connections to the oil industry, has turned out to be a climate action champion. He will be responsible for developing the new strategy.

Two weeks ago, under his leadership, the Commission gave itself the mandate to broker ambitious energy efficiency and renewables deals, in the ongoing three-way ‘trilogue’ negotiations with the Parliament and the member states. Times they are a-changin’ indeed.

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