Why Europe’s climate action has been put on hold

The EU is already struggling to live up to the promises it made at the COP 21. [Le Centre d'Information sur l'Eau/Flickr]

Angela Merkel’s absence from the COP 22 is symbolic of a European climate and energy policy beset by indecision and infighting. EURACTIV France reports.

The German Chancellor will be conspicuously absent from the COP 22 in Marrakesh this November. François Hollande, Matteo Renzi and Marino Rajoy all plan to attend the UN climate conference.

This absence speaks volumes about Germany’s motivation to pursue its climate pledges from the COP 21 in Paris last year. As promised, Berlin published its 2050 climate action plan in September. But while the text tables reductions to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of 80-95%, it says little about how the country intends to tackle its two main problems: coal-fired power stations and transport.

Kicking the coal habit

Germany’s reluctance to expand on how it plans to ditch coal is down to the very thing that has until now made it the leader of the energy transition. Berlin’s rejection of nuclear energy forced it to develop renewables to close the energy gap. But the steep rise in energy prices and the knock-on effects for the competitiveness of German industry have led some to question the wisdom of leaving behind fossil fuels.

Intense lobbying persuaded Germany’s Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, Sigmar Gabriel, not to set a firm end date for Germany’s reliance on coal. He said last Wednesday (26 October) that coal would remain a part of the German energy mix until at least 2040. And the country’s plans for electric cars have fallen to the same fate.

But, as a recent report by the European Environment Agency highlighted, the closure of the EU’s coal-fired power stations is essential for the EU to reach its 2050 target of cutting GHG emissions by 80-95%.

Germany will also have to step up its efforts if it is to reach its 2020 targets on CO2 emissions and – perhaps more surprisingly – given the scale of the country’s energy transition, the share of renewables in its energy mix. For all its early progress, the Energiewende does not comprehensively address Germany’s energy needs, but focusses mainly on the production of electricity.

Lack of enthusiasm for effort sharing by 2030

This puts the EU’s climate policy in a delicate position, as Germany had previously been one of the bloc’s leaders in this regard. Paris sees itself as a future leader on climate change, but will have to work on its credibility: France is also behind on its 2020 targets, both in terms of emissions and renewables.

The Union may have ratified the Paris Agreement after salvaging a European deal at the last minute on 6 October, but only a small number of member states have done so themselves.

And European climate policy is at a standstill. Little progress has been made since the 2014 Council summit where the broad 2030 emissions reduction objectives were laid down, while the effect of the COP 21 has been to drive up the level of ambition required.

The Commission’s effort sharing proposal concerning the transport and agriculture sectors met with widespread disapproval in the Environment Council in mid-October. 12 countries (Latvia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Lithuania, Romania, Poland, Malta, Croatia, Bulgaria, Spain, Austria and Belgium) have called on the executive to make the emissions accounting rules under the proposal more flexible, as a way of reducing their overall effort.

Energy Union in limbo

“Of course there are good aspects and less good aspects,” said Laurence Tubiana, France’s climate ambassador, commenting on the EU’s climate and energy action. On the “less good” side, she mentioned the plans for an Energy Union, which are still blocked in the Commission.

The EU executive may well have scheduled some announcements on the subject for November, so as not to appear out of touch ahead of the COP 22, but Europe’s energy producers are beginning to worry.

Since its announcement in 2014, which was broadly met with enthusiasm, the Energy Union has made almost no progress at all. Nobody can agree on what it should be or how to go about it establishing it.

The idea of creating a central buying hub for Russian gas was cut short by the United Kingdom, which did all it could to reduce the EU’s competence on the issue, and even Germany’s proposal to speed up improvements to energy efficiency failed to convince all member states. “The Energy Union is stuck, it is a disaster. The lack of investment today will cost us dearly tomorrow,” said a source from French energy giant EDF.

With ample energy capacity already installed, France is determined to see the Energy Union become a kind of European capacity market. But Paris is standing in the way of greater interconnection, particularly with the Iberian Peninsula.

In spite of everything, Paris plans to put on a spectacular light show on 4 November, to celebrate the entry into force of the Paris Agreement.

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