European climate and energy policies up to 2020: an unexpected journey

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QUENTIN GENARD
Fot. Garry Knight, CC BY 2.0

Fot. Garry Knight, CC BY 2.0

Climate change is a reality and actions should be taken to mitigate our influence and adapt to its effects. Climate change has become a prominent item on the international agenda since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro where Governments decided establish the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that aims at limiting the average global temperature increase due to climate change.

Mitigating climate change is all about two degrees. The UNFCCC has been working on a series of scenario, from the most optimistic one to the most pessimistic one: if we continue to emit the same level of greenhouse gas (responsible for the ozone hole), the global average temperature would raise from 1.1 to 6.4 degrees Celsius by 2100. The international community agreed on the objective of staying below two degrees. To implement this objective, governments signed the Kyoto protocol that established the UNFCCC in 1992 and are actively negotiating since then for a new regime that would replace the protocol in 2020, its expiration date. In December 2015, governments will gather for the COP21 (twenty-first Conference Of the Parties) in Paris with the hope to negotiate a strong enough agreement to stay below 2 degrees.

The European Union likes to portray itself as a « global leader in climate action ». The EU has a longstanding diplomatic strategy of leading by example. This is why European leaders decided to unilaterally reduce their greenhouse gas emission by 80 to 95% in 2050, compared with 1990 level. This long term objective is scientifically based and described by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC – the scientific committees responsible for gathering evidences and providing support to policy makers) as suitable to limit the increase of the global temperature to two degrees and should be adopted by all industrialized countries. With this long term goal in mind, European leaders have set  a first milestone in 2020.

Achieving 20–20–20 by 2020

The COP15 hold in Copenhagen in 2009 was in Europe’s eyes a test-case for its climate diplomacy. The German Presidency of the Council succeeded in March 2007 to set up the precondition for what should have been a success: in the run up to Copenhagen, European leaders agreed to reduce by 20% European Union’s emissions (in comparison with 1990 level), to raise the share of renewables up to 20% in electricity’s final consumption and to increase Europe’s energy efficiency by 20% in 2020. The decision was internally binding for the EU: the European Council adopted the target(s) and charged the Commission and the Council with the necessary legislative follow-up.

Reducing greenhouse gas emission by 20%

By the year 2020, European countries should emit 20% less greenhouse gas than they were emitting in 1990. The EU might be leading by example but does not want to be the only one making substantive efforts. If the 20% decrease was an agreed target, European leaders also concluded that if other major polluters (the United States, China, India at the forefront) agreed to reduce ambitiously their emission, they would be ready to cut up to 30% of their emissions. The failure of the Copenhagen summit however demonstrated that these 10% were not an incentive strong enough for raising ambition. The 20% translated into real terms with the latest data available at that time, it means that GHG emission have to decrease by 14% in comparison with 2005 level. To make it effective, the EU set up the European Emissions Trade Scheme (a market-based mechanism to reduce the emissions of the most polluting industries such as steel) with the aim of reducing by 21% the emissions of the areas covered and by 10% for non-ETS area. Because of the failure of the ETS system, we will focus only on the national policies and therefore on the 10% target. These two targets being supposed to lead to a reduction of GHG by 20%.

The effort sharing decision is a legally binding tool that takes into account wealth differences between member states. The Parliament and the Council reached an agreement in 2009 on the implementation of the 20% EU-wide target. Each member state will be assigned a binding national target that he has the obligation to meet, under the EU law. The target has been set taking into account the economic situation of every country within a scale of +20 –20: the most advanced countries have to reduce their emissions by 20% (Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg) while the least advanced have to limit the increase of gas produced by max 20% (Bulgaria).

Fot. Dave Burnham, CC BY-NC 2.0

Fot. Dave Burnham, CC BY-NC 2.0

The European Environment Agency (EEA) is in charge of monitoring member states’ progress towards the agreed goal while the policy choices made by the countries is under scrutiny under the European Semester process. In 2014, the EEA announced that the EU will exceed its 20% reduction goal by one point. If the target is met, the road to achieve it is far from being satisfactory. At the EU level, one can note that during the 1990s, GHG emissions dropped as the European economy shifted from heavy industries to a service-based economy while in the early 2000s until the economic crisis, the emission stagnated. With the financial downturn that started in 2008, the emissions dropped by more than 7% in 2009. Since then, there is still a reduction in the emissions but at a slower pace. The situation varies widely from one Member state to another: fourteen member states are on track to reach the target or over performing (with 1 percentage point of overachievement for Greece to 46 in Cyprus), six are partly on track with current measures, three (Germany, Luxembourg and Poland) need to complement their national measures with international credits while the five remaining (Austria, Belgium, Finland, Ireland, Luxembourg and Spain) are not on track to meet the target and need to take urgent measures.

Development of renewable energy

European heads of state and governments also agreed on a target of 20% share of renewables energy in the EU’s final energy consumption. This is an important target as there is a broad consensus that to achieve the long term goal in 2050, the power sector should be the first area on which the EU member states should focus. It is indeed estimated that out of the 20% reduction, 7% will come from the renewable energy as the energy sector is the biggest emitter and at the same time is the area where there is the biggest potential to decarbonize rapidly. EU Commission’s assessment showed that a share of 55 to 75% of renewable is needed to achieve the 2050 goal. Renewable energy also implies a lot of political buy-in: it will contribute to the fight against climate change, will improve energy independence and will provide a number of new jobs by tapping into a new economic sector.

What does 20% mean in concrete terms? In 2005, the share of renewables was of 8.6% EU-wide. The gap between 2005 and 2020 is therefore of 11.4%. 20% is not an ambitious target: based on mathematical projection following a business as usual scenario, it is estimated that renewables would have anyway reached 18.3% by 2020 without the renewable directive. The Council adopted in 2008 a directive setting individual target by member state based on their starting point and income level. Likewise the GHG target, there is a huge diversity for national objectives: 49% for Sweden and 13% for Hungary for example.

But one can hardly argue that a directive is a silver bullet. Indeed, the objective set was low and member states were highly reluctant to transpose it into their national law. The Commission even started the procedure to bring Poland, Cyprus and Ireland to court for having failed in transposing the directive properly. Once they have actually transposed it, the result is more than mixed: 22 member states are considered to be on track, some countries have already exceeded the share they were supposed to achieve in 2020 (Bulgaria, Estonia and Sweden) while at the same time some countries (Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom) need to achieve an absolute renewable growth of four to seven times higher than the current pace to achieve their 2020 goals.

Energy Efficiency

Being energy efficient means using less energy for the same level of output. European leaders agreed to improve the energy efficiency of the economy by 20% so to diminish the consumption of energy. In real terms, it means a diminution of 6.3% (starting in 2012) as the European economy has already reduced its consumption by 13.7% due to the transformation of the economy to a more service-based and the economic crisis. The EU is on track to meet its target.

Energy efficiency is weaker than renewable and GHG. The policy framework set up in 2012 has been conceived in a different way than the two other headline targets: EU countries have set up their own indicative target and can choose what to measure (final energy consumption, energy efficiency of the economy). This system is not fit for purpose: national pledges fall short in meeting the 20% target (even in theory) as they amount to 16%.

Member states set insufficient targets that they are not able to meet. Seventeen countries are considered to be on track to meet their own target, seven are partly on track while 4 are not on track at all (Belgium, Estonia, Germany and Sweden).

The road to 2020: the journey matters as much as the destination

The EU was full of ambition both for its international weight and its internal policy. But the reality is elsewhere: the Copenhagen summit was a failure as no ambitious agreement could have been reached and the three (not really ambitious) overarching goals can only be met because of the improvement of the structural switch to a service-based economy that would have happened anyway, the development of renewable (that would have happened anyway) and the economic slowdown. The economic slowdown, however, accounts for less than a half of the total emission reductions achieved during this period. The EU influence is therefore very much function of the surrounding economic context. Hence the EU have to have a radical transformational approach to reach its long term goal, depending on external factors such as member states will to implement targets they have themselves decided or economic downturn is not satisfactory. At all.

One can expect that the European institutions will have learned their lessons. European leaders agreed in October 2014 a new milestone: the Paris Summit in December 2015 is presented at the next step for EU international diplomacy regarding climate change and EU leaders agreed a new 2030 framework setting up three new targets: greenhouse gas, renewable and energy efficiency. The targets are even less ambitious and the policy to underpin them is still very much to be defined. “Same old, same old” one could say.


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Quentin Genard

Graduate from the Faculty of Law and Political Science, University of Liège (MA, 2012) and the Department of European Political and Administrative Studies at the College of Europe in Bruges (MA 2013). Intern at the European Movement Belgium (2010) and the Group of Research and Information on Peace and Security (Brussels, 2013). He is since associated researcher at GRIP and member of the political cabinet of a Belgian Minister, dealing with European and International Affairs.

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