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After Paris climate deal the EU must turn aspiration into achievement

Mal Langsdon / Reuters

After Paris climate deal the EU must turn aspiration into achievement

A “lifeline” for the planet that “will steer the world towards a global clean energy transition”, was how European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker hailed the Paris agreement. He also claimed it to be “a success for the European Union” itself.

The EU’s demand for a legally binding document was realised. However the agreement carries less weight than a full treaty (though a Kyoto-style treaty wouldn’t be approved by the US Congress).

Ahead of the summit the EU had called for global average temperatures to be kept below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and it will be satisfied with the revised 1.5°C goal. This unexpectedly ambitious target is not accompanied by clear emissions reductions targets and therefore does not reflect the three main targets in the EU’s 2030 climate and energy framework: to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% from 1990 levels; for renewable energy to compromise at least 27% of electricity generation; and an “indicative” target of at least 27% more efficient energy use.

The framework contains a flexibility clause that allows the EU to reconsider the 40% target. In the absence of clear targets in the agreement it is likely that eastern European countries such as Poland that are heavily dependent on fossil fuels will seek to renegotiate this commitment downwards. The previous UK government accepted the 40% target but current government policies are incompatible with it.

Put Germany in the driving seat

In typically vague language, the Paris agreement calls for global greenhouse gas emissions to peak “as soon as possible”. The EU wants this to occur by 2020 but that’s not going to happen. It also wants global emissions reductions of at least 50% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels, but that would require unprecedented levels of global cooperation. Even within Europe, member states will have to move smartly to accomplish the EU’s aim of 95% emissions reductions by 2050.

Germany has one of the world’s leading wind power industries. Fabian Bimmer/Reuters

To have any chance of success, energy policy will have to be driven by Germany, Scandinavian and other greener nations, rather than the likes of the UK and Poland. If the Paris agreement truly marks the end of the fossil fuels era, as some commentators have claimed, the EU will have to send clear signals that continued investment in coal, oil and gas is counterproductive and business as usual is no longer possible.

Diplomatic successes

During the summit the EU formed an alliance with 79 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries that effectively endorsed its negotiating position, a grouping that later expanded to 134 countries and doubtless facilitated the agreement. The alliance pushed for a legally binding, inclusive and fair deal to be reviewed every five years, and a strong transparency and accountability mechanism to track whether each country is hitting its targets. The EU agreed to provide €475m to support adaptation in partner countries before 2020, far less than needed.

The EU secured provisions that require countries to ratchet their adaptation and mitigation commitments upwards every five years and to have clear stringent transparency and accountability. However the agreement appears to be mainly enforced through simple naming and shaming – which doesn’t inspire confidence.

The agreement reflected the EU’s willingness to contribute its share of a minimum of US$100 billion that developed countries have pledged to make available to developing countries every year from 2020 from public and private sources. It will have to find these funds in a period of slow growth to put its money where its mouth is, and the time has surely arrived to stop all fossil fuel subsidies and consider an EU-wide carbon tax.

Under pressure from small island states and other developing countries suffering from climate change through no fault of their own, the EU accepted the inclusion of an article on loss and damage caused by global warming. However it then conspired with the US to insist that the article does not provide a basis for liability and compensation.

The EU continued its historically positive role as a major actor in climate negotiations in Paris. Its ability to act collectively facilitated agreement and contributed to France’s diplomatic success.

But the agreement is long on ambitious rhetoric and short on detail. It makes no mention of fossil fuels and is weak on corporate accountability and human rights. It is a step in the right direction but a decade too late. To place itself on the right side of history, the EU must now demonstrate that aspiration can be turned into achievement through action rather than words.