EU countries get cold feet on raising climate goals

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As international climate change negotiations drag on, EU countries are calling for a “rigorous assessment” of what other nations are prepared to do before scaling up their own commitments, EURACTIV has learned.

Europeans are edging closer to a decision on how to measure other countries’ commitment to fight climate change as the EU prepares for a final round of UN negotiations in Copenhagen later this year.

Environment ministers from the 27-country bloc are meeting on 21 October to prepare for Copenhagen, with an EU summit on 29-30 October expected to hammer out their final position.

‘Critical phase’

“We are entering a critical phase of the Copenhagen preparations whether at international or European level,” said a senior diplomat from one of the EU’s large member countries, speaking to Brussels journalists off the record.

“The Swedish EU Presidency had planned things in this way: from the moment we decide our position on open issues, which will be done before the end of the month, we will enter the final straight. From the October EU summit until Copenhagen, we will need to find agreement on all topics.”

But progress in international negotiations is slow, leading Europeans to imagine several possible scenarios for their own climate change commitments.

Last year, the EU adopted its so-called energy and climate change package, committing to reduce its emissions by 20% unilaterally by 2020, regardless of what other countries do. This target would be raised to 30% in the event that other developed countries such as the US adopt similar cuts and emerging economies such as China and India slow their own emissions by 15-30% below business-as-usual by the same date (EURACTIV 29/01/09).

30% target open to internal EU negotiation

However, this commitment is being questioned by some EU member states, which are calling for a strict assessment of other countries’ commitments before embarking on any further emission cuts, the diplomat said.

“We have to be very rigorous in our analysis so that we do not make commitments in Copenhagen that would create problems afterwards at the European level,” the diplomat warned.

“What we said in the energy and climate change package is that the passage from 20 to 30%, the additional effort, would be subject to co-decision,” which requires the approval of all EU member states, the diplomat added, suggesting that difficult talks may lie ahead for Europe.

“It is a major decision to go from 20 to 30%, it is a very important additional effort,” the diplomat said, explaining that the United Kingdom, Belgium and the Netherlands were the only countries in favour of raising the EU’s target “almost unilaterally”. EU president Sweden and Denmark, which is hosting the UN summit in December, are also favourable, he said, but have tamed their positions given their special role in the negotiations.

In contrast, a majority of EU countries including France, Germany, Italy and most of the newer member states from Central Europe are in favour of a more cautious approach, the diplomat said.

US feet-dragging influencing EU position

At the heart of Europe’s concerns is the position of the United States, which is heading towards emissions reductions of around 20% by 2020 compared to 2005 levels. This is much smaller than what Europe has committed to, as the EU decided to choose 1990 as the base year for its own unilateral 20% commitment. 

Under a draft bill discussed in Washington, the bulk of US emission cuts would take place between 2020 and 2030, leaving enough time to prepare for a low-carbon future without inflicting too much pain on the US economy.

But as the draft US bill takes shape, some European countries are now calling for espousing the US position and choosing 2030 as a target date instead of 2020. This is the case of Poland, for example, which has resisted the EU’s 2020 targets, claiming that they call for too rapid a transformation of its coal-dependent economy.

“In this debate there is also the position which consists of saying that if we don’t arrive at the right level in 2020, then we will make up for it in 2030” with deeper emission cuts, the EU diplomat said. “This is the debate which is going on in the United States. This is not the position of the EU today but this is a debate which will take place in any case so we are preparing for it.”

According to the diplomat, such a delay in cutting emissions would have to be thoroughly checked against scientific advice, which says global emissions should peak by 2020 and decline steeply afterwards if climate change is to be kept under control.

“What we are saying is that if there is going to be a 2030 examination, then it has to be absolutely equivalent in scientific terms” to the recommendations of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the diplomat said.

Pointing out that greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere, he added: “If we fall behind in 2020, then not only will we have to get back on the right trajectory [for 2050] but also do more to compensate for what will have been emitted in the meantime.”

The global community is currently engaged in negotiations to agree a successor to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, which expires in 2012.

The latest round of UN climate talks in Bangkok ended with little progress, leaving negotiators preparing for the Copenhagen summit in December on the assumption that not every detail will be agreed (EURACTIV 13/10/09).

Last year, the European Union committed to reducing its own emissions by 20% unilaterally by 2020, regardless of what other countries do.

The target would be raised to 30% in the event that other developed countries such as the US agree similar cuts and emerging economies such as China and India slash their own emissions by 15-30% below business-as-usual by the same date (EURACTIV 29/01/09).

  • 20 Oct.: Meeting of EU finance ministers. 
  • 21 Oct.: Meeting of EU environment ministers. 
  • 29-30 Oct.: EU summit.

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