Last week, 28 European leaders met at a summit in Brussels to reach a climate deal that would build on previous targets of a 20 percent cut in greenhouse gases, a 20 percent boost in the use of renewable sources, and a 20 percent increase in energy efficiency–from the benchmark year of 1990–by 2020.
After the 2009 Copenhagen global climate conference failed to produce a legally binding global treaty to replace the lapsing Kyoto Protocol, climate campaigners, in desperation, want to put some kind of win on the board. Therefore, despite threats to veto the deal and discussions that ran into the wee hours, the European Union’s agreement on a new set of climate and energy goals is being heralded as “a new global standard”–though it is really more “I will, if you will.”
Prior to the meeting, countries such as Poland (which wanted to protect its coal industry) and Portugal (which has excess renewable energy that it cannot, currently, export to the rest of Europe) threatened to block the deal. Poorer states in Eastern Europe feared new cuts in carbon output would hurt them economically by slowing business growth. Industrialists complained that the new regulations would discourage business and investment in the bloc, at a time when its faltering economy can ill afford to lose it.
As predicated, a deal was struck–though the current team of commissioners steps aside in days, and the new commission will have to finesse the implementation. “It was not easy, not at all, but we managed to reach a fair decision,” European Council President Herman Van Rompuy stated.
Problems were overcome by cash. To get opposing countries, like Poland, to come on board, Van Rompuy pledged “extra support for lower-income countries, both through adequate targets and through additional funds to help them catch up in their clean-energy transition.” Reports indicate that Poland “secured a complex set of financial incentives…to soften the impact of the target on Polish coal miners and the coal-fired power stations on which its 38 million people depend.”
The “decision” calls for a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of at least 40 percent and a 27 percent increase in renewables and energy efficiency, from 1990 levels, by 2030–though the original plan called for a 30-percent increase in renewables and efficiency.
Already complaining, environmentalists accuse Europe of abdicating its “climate policy leadership.” The EU accounts for about a tenth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, but has generally done more than other major industrial powers to curb them.
Greenpeace claimed the compromise “pulled the handbrake on clean energy” and Oxfam called for targets of 55 percent in emissions cuts, and increases of 40 percent in energy savings (efficiency) and 45 percent for use of renewable energy.
While environmentalists are not happy, the BBC reports: “Europe’s leaders have been under heavy pressure not to impose much higher costs, especially when the economy is struggling.”
“Poland has long argued,” according to Reuters, “there is no reason for Europe …to commit to deeper emissions cuts before the rest of the world does”–and this is where “I will, if you will” comes in.
EU leaders claim to be “setting an example for the rest of the world,” yet the final text includes a “flexibility clause,” also called the “Paris review clause.” According to the EU Observer, “The EU agreement–the so-called climate and energy framework–is to be reviewed after an international summit on climate change in Paris in 2015. This means that, in theory, the European Council can change the targets if they are not matched by non-European countries.” The report continued: “Several eastern and central European countries feared that if the EU set too ambitious targets, while other nations like China or the US, slack, it could harm their competitiveness.”
The chances of a new global treaty in Paris are slim.
The 190 countries that in 2009 pledged $190 billion in aid for climate-related projects for developing countries can’t agree on a formula for their aid commitments. Without the aid, island nations won’t commit.
President Obama, according to the New York Times, looks toward an “agreement,” a “politically binding” deal, not a “legally binding treaty”–as the Senate will not ratify a new climate treaty (especially if the Republicans take control). The Times quotes Paul Bledsoe, a top climate-change official in the Clinton administration who works closely with the Obama White House in international climate policy: “If you want a deal that includes all the major emitters, including the U.S., you cannot realistically pursue a legally binding treaty at this time.” The “agreement” would include “voluntary pledges.”
The Times reporting concurs with the “I will, if you will” approach: “unilateral action by the world’s largest economy will not be enough to curb the rise of carbon pollution across the globe. That will be possible only if the world’s largest economies, including India and China, agree to enact similar cuts.”
For more than twenty years, international discussions designed to address climate change have taken place. Treaties, pledges, agreements, and accords have been signed. Yet, carbon dioxide emissions are higher than ever and the planet hasn’t warmed.
Engaging in symbolism over substance, the EU agrees to emissions cuts–but only if everyone else does.