Why bother going to 30%? Fatih Birol surely knows the answer

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

More investments in energy efficiency and low-carbon technologies, more jobs, better health, some regained climate leadership on a global level and an increased chance of keeping global temperature rises below 2°C by the end of the century are among the reasons why the EU should adopt a target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2020, writes Stephen Boucher, programme director for EU climate policies, in an exclusive commentary for EURACTIV to mark the beginning of the Cancún climate negotiations. 

This commentary was sent exclusively to EURACTIV by Stephen Boucher, programme director for EU climate policies at the European Climate Foundation.

"Your article 'China to outstrip EU's higher CO2 reduction plans' ignores some important points by implying that Fatih Birol's recent remarks that the EU's aim of moving from a 20% to a 30% greenhouse gas emissions reduction target was futile.

As the chief economist at the International Energy Agency (IEA), Fatih Birol is well aware that unless there is a 'phenomenal policy push' by governments around the world, the rising demand for fossil fuels will drive global temperatures above the internationally agreed 2°C mark. And why will he be so aware of that?

The quote comes from an IEA press release dated 9 November and is reinforced by a quote from Mr Birol's own executive director, Nobuo Tanaka: 'We must act now to ensure that climate commitments are interpreted in the strongest way possible and that much stronger commitments are adopted and taken up after 2020, if not before. Otherwise, the 2°C goal could be out of reach for good.'

It is clear that all world regions must take clear action now to avoid catastrophic temperature rises.
Confirming this, the UNEP Emissions Gap Report published last week indicates that we will get around 60% of the emissions reductions needed to keep global temperatures under a 2°C rise only if all the Copenhagen pledges are fully implemented.

That means no-one is doing enough. The EU pledged 20%. Its 30% goal is imperative as 'a business-as-usual scenario would see emissions rise to an average of around 56 Gt of CO2 equivalent by around 2020’ and 'leave a gap of around 5 Gt compared with where we need to be', leaving us on a track towards a temperature increase exceeding 3.5°C by the end of the century. So interpreting Mr. Birol's statement as 'well, let's just all sit on our hands and wait for someone else to act' is irresponsible.
Second, we should look beyond our own region and recognise that the rest of the world is already moving. Despite their increasing energy consumption, the Chinese are massively gearing up their emissions reduction efforts. By closing down this year over 2,000 polluting factories, including steel, paper, cement and dyeing factories, Beijing shows how it is taking serious steps in cutting the country's carbon intensity by 40-45% compared by 2020 vs. 2005. They have already achieved 14.4% in the first four years of the plan. China recognises the benefits of a shift to a low-carbon economy, but you can't turn a tanker on a dime.

China is a world leader in harnessing the wasted heat from cement kilns and has already begun exporting this technology. In 2009 the government announced additional measures as part of a plan for the revitalisation of ten key industries: outmoded, high-energy production technologies are to be eliminated, and better resource use and recycling promoted. Do we really want to sit on our hands as the energy intensive industries suggest, and let China innovate? [Report: China’s Clean Revolution (2009), Author: The Climate Group]

Apart from the targets on energy efficiency China is also doing exceptionally well in the renewable energies sector. It ranks third in installed wind energy capacity, with 25.1 GW of installed capacity (up 207% from 12.1 GW in 2008). 'Given the current growth rates, it can be expected that even the unofficial target of 150 GW will be met well ahead of 2020,' Li Junfeng, secretary-general of the Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association, said recently.

China has also leapfrogged the West in the last two years to emerge as the world's largest manufacturer of solar panels. And the country is pushing equally hard to build nuclear reactors and the most efficient types of coal power plants.   
A third reason to maintain the pressure in the drive to 30% is that the target makes economic sense for Europe, no matter what it means in terms of Chinese emissions. The price for the move from 20% to 30% has hugely decreased following the economic crisis. And these costs are not an immediate GDP loss, but rather the increased expenditures needed to redirect the economy towards lower-carbon activities that will generate increased growth in coming decades.
The positive economic side effects are also significant. Just the health co-benefits of moving from 20% to 30% pay for the bill, with over 30 billion euro per year by 2020 of health benefits alone. Not a bad deal for our ageing society.

Tanaka also warned that the weak pledges made at the Copenhagen summit last year have increased the cost of meeting global climate goals by $1 trillion between now and 2035 and appealed to governments to implement their climate pledges vigorously to avoid doubling oil prices. Other sources already predict this doubling within the next decade. As the EU is more and more dependent on imported oil a price shock can lead us into another recession.

So far the EU has been at the forefront of low-carbon technology growth and its leadership in climate change policy has led to action in other countries and at international level. However, its competitors are catching up fast and it cannot afford to let up the pace. China and the USA led the world in new clean energy technology and infrastructure investment in 2009, at $34.6 billion (€28 billion) and $18.6 billion (€15 billion) respectively (Ernst & Young).
So, why should we move to 30%? More investments in energy efficiency and low-carbon technologies, more jobs, better health, some regained climate leadership on a global level and an increased chance of not exceeding 2°C at the end of the century are just some of the reasons. Surely points which Mr Birol well understands, but which are sadly still ignored by those who have a vested interest in the high-carbon economy."  

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