We're about to see how serious Europe is about climate change

Posted by sgelmini — 22 January 2014 at 11:58am - Comments
Wind park Gunfleet Sands in the North Sea
All rights reserved. Credit: Paul Langrock / Greenpeace
The UK government has been lobbying against a binding European target for renewable energy

If you’re concerned about the impact runaway climate change is likely to have on our planet, then you might want to keep an eye on what’s happening in Brussels today. At around midday, the European Commission will unveil a major package of measures on climate and energy. They are likely to cover a range of vital issues from cutting polluting carbon emissions to promoting clean energy, from regulating fracking to banning the most polluting transport fuels.

If you weed out the jargon and dispel the political smokescreen that usually comes with big announcements from Brussels, what you’re left with is Europe’s big plan to get to grip with the one of the biggest challenges humanity is facing – climate change.

As yesterday’s New York Times editorial shows, the eyes of the world will be on Brussels, as governments across the world wait for a signal from Europe on how serious the powerful bloc is about dealing with climate change.

Curbing carbon pollution
The cornerstone of the package is the target the EU will set to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, pumped into the atmosphere. The UK, along with France, Germany and Italy, recently wrote to President Barroso supporting a minimum 40%& reduction in the EU’s domestic greenhouse emissions by 2030, compared with 1990 levels. Some powerful industrial lobby groups, backed by the energy commissioner Günther Oettinger, have consistently argued for a weaker goal instead.

The scale of the EU’s proposal is likely to have a knock-on effect on global efforts to rein in carbon emissions, as it will set the tone for negotiations towards a new UN climate deal due to be signed in Paris in 2015. In reality, a 55% target is the minimum needed for the EU to play its part in limiting global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius – the threshold the world’s governments have agreed we shouldn’t cross if we are to avert catastrophic climate change.

Shifting to clean energy
The most obvious way to slash carbon emissions is to shift our power generation from dirty fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy sources like wind and solar. This is why carbon reduction targets have so far gone hand-in-hand with targets to increase the share of energy coming from renewable sources. The targets for renewables currently in place, which run until 2020, are legally binding, which means that governments can be held accountable, and slapped with a fine, for failing to meet their share of the target.

Germany, France and six other countries recently wrote to the European Commission supporting a new legally binding renewables target for 2030. Sadly, the UK government has been active on the opposite front, heavily lobbying the commission against a binding target. UK ministers have argued that such a policy would not be ‘cost effective’, implying that consumers could end up paying more. Yet new research published yesterday indicates this is highly unlikely, as the most ambitious renewables target under discussion are broadly in line with share of clean energy the UK has already committed itself to.

While of little consequence for bill payers, a binding target would make all the difference for the clean energy sector, making investment in renewables less risky and therefore more appealing and helping drive down production costs. A proper target would also help create an EU-wide market for renewable energy where Britain could export the cutting-edge green energy tech and know-how which makes the UK a world leader in this sector – something David Cameron likes to boast about.

Discussion has been taking place in Brussels about the need for new EU laws to regulate the fracking industry, addressing concerns about safety and environmental impacts. But proposals for stricter rules have been torpedoed by the UK and a group of other countries. David Cameron himself recently wrote to the commission’s president Barroso effectively telling him that Europe should not get in the way of the UK fracking revolution.

Thanks to this UK-led lobby push it’s now likely that, instead of legally enforceable rules, the commission will produce much weaker ‘guidance’ for fracking – tame enough to let fracking companies go about their business undisturbed. Energy minister Michael Fallon once boasted the UK has "the most robust regulatory regime in the world for shale gas". If this is indeed the case, it’s not clear what the UK has to fear from tighter EU regulation.

Tar sands
Another important decision the EU executive is expected to announce is whether to give another lease of life, beyond 2020, to the European Fuel Quality Directive - a piece of legislation designed to penalise transport fuels with the highest impact on greenhouse gases. These include, for example, tar sands fuels, which are considered highly polluting because of the huge amount of energy needed to extract oil from tar sands.

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