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What does the EU’s climate package mean for a global deal?

Behind Europe’s climate and energy agreement, tectonic plates have started to shift. The challenge is to communicate this to countries like China, writes Liz Gallagher of E3G

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The German and French leaders talk on the sidelines of last week's summit, where Europe thrashed out its climate goals for 2030 (Image by European Council / Flickr)

We Europeans are often deeply sceptical, or some might say “humble”, about the political and real-economy traction our domestic decisions have elsewhere in the world.  We often fail to understand if and how our domestic agreements have meaning elsewhere.

The EU 2030 climate and energy package is a case in point. European leaders agreed a package that includes a target to reduce emissions by at least 40% based on 1990 levels. Independent analysis using a wide range of models suggests that a 40% reduction by 2030 is not a cost-effective trajectory to achieve 80% reductions by 2050, let alone the higher end of the range agreed by the European Council (95%).

Europe has been one of the driving forces behind the global obligation to agree a deal in Paris in 2015 compatible with keeping warming within 2 degrees Celsius. But this package is barely consistent with such trajectories.

By using the term “at least” in framing its commitment, however, Europe has shown that 40% is not the final word. And under the surface of the agreement, some tectonic plates have begun to shift.  

The renewables target of “at least 27%” by 2030 will likely result in the dominance of renewable-energy production across many EU member states in the next decade.

The interconnection target of 15% will produce a continent-wide electricity grid, securing energy cooperation and security. And last but not least the energy-efficiency target of “at least 27%”, coupled with stronger domestic regulation in France, Germany and the UK as well as increasing EU efficiency finance, should mean that the EU delivers more than it bargained for in its overall 40% greenhouse-gas reduction target.

While the headlines won’t stop emissions in their tracks, the backdrop to the package was intense European divisions over how to stimulate growth in a stagnating regional economy, fears of energy security as tensions with Russia escalate and the deep incumbent influence of our energy intensive industries. There were few “political” incentives for leaders to expend political capital on this issue, and yet they chose to focus efforts on the climate battle.

Angela Merkel of Germany, François Hollande of France, David Cameron of the United Kingdom and Stefan Löfven of Sweden showed real resolve in tough negotiations. These leaders closely considered the views of their international partners and prioritised the value of a global agreement, and a push towards 2°C.

The road to Paris

In 2015, countries will get together to strike an international climate agreement. As part of this, they’ve agreed to submit their initial emissions-reduction offers in the early part of 2015. By chance, Europe is the first to announce its offer, and so by default has set the benchmark for others as they consider their own national contributions towards a deal in Paris 2015. Next month, the United States and China will meet at the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum to discuss their respective climate agendas and inform their national climate-mitigation commitments.

If September’s Climate Summit in New York told us one thing, it was that the stars are aligning for a global agreement. Not only have we got a US administration committed to both domestic and international action on climate change, but China is proactively tackling carbon emissions through its efforts to reduce air pollution. More ambition is needed, but we’re getting somewhere. What’s required is an alternative pole of influence to enable and empower both superpowers not to align towards to low common denominator. Europe is ideally placed for such a role.

And yet, against the backdrop of these high-profile developments, the plenaries of the UN negotiations on climate change appear almost isolated from the sense of momentum. Criticism of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change often blames the process for hindering political outcomes. This is unfair. On the whole, it’s the politics that temper ambition.  

Despite the political dividends being reaped on the global stage, these are not automatically translated into revised mandates for the negotiators. Europe’s climate and energy package will not organically breed sufficient goodwill and conciliation between the technocrats so rooted in the petty politics of climate diplomacy.  

This translation problem needs to be addressed. Critical to securing more ambition from Europe will be action from countries such as China that reinforces the kernel of European progressive leadership we saw last week and maintains the pressure on the EU to rise to the occasion in 2015. Without effective climate diplomacy between the core countries, the developments over the past six months will not just be lost in translation, but lost forever.

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