Climate expert: EU targets ‘fake and untransparent’

As world diplomats struggle to hammer out a climate agreement in Copenhagen, former senior EU negotiator on the Kyoto Protocol Jørgen Knud Henningsen told EURACTIV in an interview that the debate on targets is ill-fated. He said leaders would be better off concentrating on the 1992 UN convention ratified by the US and devising policies to achieve the long-term goal of cutting C02 emissions by 80% before 2050. 

Jørgen Knud Henningsen is energy and climate advisor at Brussels-based think-tank the European Policy Centre. He served as senior EU negotiator to the Kyoto talks in 1997. 

He was speaking to Daniela Vincenti-Mitchener.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

The talks are not making progress in Copenhagen, as developed and developing countries fail to reach consensus over climate finance and the details of a legally-binding agreement. Developing countries want a Kyoto Protocol II, while developed countries want a new global agreement with specific targets for all. Regardless of whether we can reach political commitment in Copenhagen in view of securing a legally-binding agreement next year, do you think we are on the right track? 

The key question on any legally-binding agreement is whether it will be ratified. 

We have seen that already with Kyoto. When the US decided not to ratify it, it was perceived as a big fall back, not only because we were not going to have the US contribution, but also because to come into force it then had to be ratified by Russia. 

When you are talking about a legally-binding agreement this would have value only if it is ratified by the major players: the EU, US, Japan, China and Russia. 

I think that the most critical of those is by all means the United States. For the US to ratify an international agreement it takes 67 votes in the US Senate. This is why the US is not party to many international agreements. So even if the US is taking part in the negotiations and even if it signs an agreement, it still needs to get the necessary majority in the Senate to ratify it. 

Therefore, the US needs to be part of a future agreement, not only because of the size of the US as a major emitter, but also because if the US is not part of the agreement other countries will not be ready to join a number of OECD countries, Canada for example. And China won’t either. And probably Russia will not either. 

Whether one likes it or not, whatever comes out of Copenhagen needs to have the US bound to act the same way as others. 

So what kind of scenario do you see taking shape? 

Some sort of political agreement that will be followed by a legally-binding agreement, whether that will be a continuation of Kyoto – and I don’t think that will be – or whether it will be a new agreement or protocol. 

In all cases that will have to be ratified by the US in order to take effect in the US as a legally-binding agreement. I think there lies the big problem. 

For the time being, we are told that the US was not able to do its homework, because they have not approved any climate bill and do not know what is going to be the future US legislation. 

But we are a bit misled here, because even when the US decides on its legislation in four, five months, there is still a problem. 

If the US were to decide on the new legislation – carbon trade, targets for 2020 or 2050 – even should this be done with probably 60 votes in the Senate, I cannot see how it is possible to turn that into a full-fledged international agreement, gathering 67 senators’ votes in favor of such an agreement for ratification. I cannot see how this is achievable. 

The US did not ratify Kyoto, but it did ratify the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, which has no legally-binding targets. Is that correct? Would that be a better framework upon which to base a future deal? 

The Convention is legally binding, but it is correct that the targets are not legally binding, which are in Article 4.2(b) – spelling out the need to return to 1990 levels. The targets are vague in the Convention, but the commitment on policies and measures in Article 4.2(a) is quite strong. That says that developed countries should pursue policies and take measures in a way to change the trend that is consistent with long-term objectives. 

Neither the US nor many others have done that yet and are in breach of the Convention, so are a lot of others. Nobody seems interested in pursuing that question. 

I think the whole world would be better served to go back to that: implementing Article 4.2(a) is not something that requires any ratification from the US senate. It is already an agreed international convention, and legally binding. 

The only thing you need to do is to sit down and decide which policies to pursue in order to meet this request that it has to be consistent with the long-term objective. 

The difference between today and 1992 is that we have a better understanding of what is needed to meet the long-term objective, which is to reduce emissions 80% by 2050. 

How concretely can that happen? 

It can only happen as concretely as the governments are ready to let it happen. You cannot force targets down the throat of anybody and in order to have the targets coming into force, you need to have the support of a less progressive Senate with 67 and a 2/3 majority. 

In order to implement policies on coal power plants or renewable energy or energy efficiency, that is something that takes much less of a majority (60 senators). It is also much easier to explain to the public and have the support of companies on these specific measures. 

There are a lot of people nowadays that realise that we cannot go on building coal-fired power plants without carbon capture systems. There are people who realise that we need to do something about the gasoline consumption of cars, also because we have an oil supply problem. 

In the US, EU, India and China are all oil importers and they should be able to coordinate better their policies on the fuel efficiency of cars. They would all have a positive interest in this. 

We would be better served if we would look into specific policies than into these targets that are far too easy to question. 

What about the EU targets? 

These targets are fake. Because the EU targets are not a reduction of 20%, but rather a stabilisation from now to 2020. It was possible to sell the 20% as though it were the 20%, but it is really not as it seems, partly because of the deindustrialisation of Eastern Europe and the recent recession. 

Then you have all those CDM projects that come on top which really artificially alter the exact figures of emission reductions. 

These targets are not terribly transparent. Very few people are able to explain how the Americans, Japanese and Australian targets compare. To some extent they aren’t really comparable. 

For example, the fact that everybody is saying the US is doing much less than the EU because their target is 17% below 2005, which is really a reduction of 3-4% t if you use 1990 as a base year. On the other hand, for the US to achieve that target it would take much greater effort than for the EU to achieve their 20% by 2020. 

We are stuck in a process where everybody that is against has the possibility to argue the case because of this lack of transparency in a way that is damaging for the process. 

What’s the way out? If you were at the negotiating table what would be your exit strategy? 

If I were at the negotiating table today and allowed to speak my mind, I would invite everyone to sideline the targets discussion and focus on a parallel track, which focuses on the policies and measures, instead of concentrating on these numbers, which have a number of loopholes. 

I would suggest, whatever the outcome, it should have an element highlighting the need to start working internationally much more seriously on policies and measures to reach the long-term targets that we have agreed upon – I am talking of the 80% reduction by 2050. 

I believe it would be much easier to get the major developing countries constructively involved in this process – Brazil, India, China – because many of these policies are in the interest of these countries. It would not necessarily be harmonised policies, not all following the same path, but they have to be coordinated. 

Let me give you an example: the EU should definitely commit to no more coal-fired power plants. That should not apply to China and even less to India. 

But China, for instance, should be committed to get rid of some of their older inefficient coal plants. They should be able to build for a number of years new, more efficient coal plants, which would cut down on the coke consumption. 

Of course, then you need to sit down and come up with a fair deal. But in my view, this is the way to deliver a much more ambitious deal. 

When you are talking about more coordination, are you thinking under the Convention? 

The framework is there. The problem is that in 1995 the parties to the UNFCCC convened and said the Convention was not enough to solve the long-term climate change. 

That is because one article of the Convention spelled out that the parties would get together and consider further measures if needed. That was what initiated the negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol. Back in 1991-92 there was not time to have more than a sketchy framework in the UNFCCC, so there was a need to agree for review. 

All the attention went to the Kyoto Protocol and even more so after the US failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. All the others threw their love into the Protocol, despite the fact that not having the US on board it was not going to deliver ambitious results. 

All the political debate has been focusing away from the Climate Convention and I would say that if Kyoto had been an instrument that had lived up to what it should have, that would have been okay. 

But now if you look back: the 1992 Climate Convention is the proper instrument. 

What about the Montreal Protocol? Can it be a model? 

Not really. The Montreal Protocol addresses one narrow problem. The necessary action is relatively narrow. Our societies have not been affected as such because of the elimination of the ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) or the hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), whereas when it comes to greenhouse gases it affects the whole energy structure of our societies. 

It is good to be aware of the Montreal Protocol, and where it worked. But Montreal is far from being sufficient to provide the answer to the climate challenge. 

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