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The 2015 UN conference on climate change: towards a new EU failure?

Will the 2015 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris be another conference of big promises and disconcerting results? An insight into unsatisfactory EU environmental policy. 

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The year 2015 will be crucial for global efforts to counter climate warming. At the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to be held in Paris next November, world leaders will have a new chance to set global targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, thereby compensating for the failure of previous UN climate conferences. Missing this renewed target may have far-reaching implications. As the most recent report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has highlighted, if nothing is done to curb greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures may increase by as much as 7.8°C by 2100. This would fundamentally change the earth, as we know it. Rising sea levels would expunge whole countries from the map; desertification, water and food scarcity would trigger devastating humanitarian and economic catastrophes.

Faced with this disastrous scenario, the leaders of developed countries are called upon to lead the path towards a low-carbon economy. Most importantly, they will have to set ambitious, binding targets for the reduction of CO₂ emissions and a clear deadline by when to achieve the set goals. Without agreement on obligatory goals and well as clear deadlines, the UN conference in Paris will be another major failure, just as its predecessor conference in Copenhagen in 2009. Developed countries have a particular responsibility for the success of the conference due to their historic role as polluters. Besides committing to limiting their own emissions, developed countries will have to offer substantial technological and financial assistance to developing countries, so that they can manage to curb their greenhouse gas emissions. This assistance is not charitable, it is a moral obligation for developed countries that have built their economic fortunes out of a carbon-based economy, depleting global resources and contributing the most to climate change. These countries have a ‘climate debt’ with poorer nations, most of which are located in areas heavily affected by climate change (i.e. sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia).

Bearing this in mind, the leaders of the European Union (EU) agreed on the region’s energy and climate targets for 2030 last October. These targets are the ‘visiting cards’, which the Union will present at the UNFCCC in Paris next year, with the aim of encouraging other developed countries to make similar commitments. They include a 40% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions compared to a 1990 baseline (namely, compared to the level of emissions in 1990). They also promise that at least 27% of total energy production will come from renewable sources and a 27% increase in energy efficiency. These goals, EU leaders have claimed are ambitious and will strengthen the Union’s position at the Paris summit. However, at a closer look, this contention does not hold.

The 40% CO₂ reduction target is the only one that was broken down into binding targets at national level. The renewable target is binding only at the EU level. It remains unclear how this goal will be transposed into obligations for each individual member state. More disturbingly, the efficiency target is not binding; member states will be able to ignore it without facing any sanction. Taking into account previous EU proposals and technological potential, none of the targets seems particularly ambitious. Prior to the 2009 UN conference in Copenhagen, EU leaders promised to commit to a 30% reduction in CO₂ emissions by 2020, if other developed countries set equally binding targets. In light of this, an additional cut of only 10% by 2030 looks unimpressive. Environmentalist non-governmental organisations such as Friends of the Earth argued that, in the next 16 years, the EU could be able to reduce CO₂ emissions by 60%.

Similarly, the 27% renewables target does not constitute a major improvement from the 20% goal already agreed for 2020. Furthermore, indicated by current levels of renewable energy production (around 14% of total EU energy production) this is not a big advancement. To aggravate the situation further, EU leaders agreed that new legislation on climate and energy will only pass if there is a unanimous vote of all 28 member states. This agreement essentially gives veto power to countries such as Poland and the United Kingdom, which have persistently opposed efficiency and renewable energy goals. Hence, the current EU climate and 2030 energy policy targets indicate that the Union is not planning on achieving a breakthrough in the transition to a sustainable, low carbon economy in the next generation. As a recent report of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies argued, the Union is ‘taking its foot off the pedal of climate action’. Faced with declining domestic energy production, Brussels will remain heavily reliant on imports of fossil fuels from abroad.

After leading global efforts to counter climate change for nearly two decades, the EU now risks to become a marginal actor in the field. At the 2009 UN Copenhagen conference, US and Chinese negotiators decided the outcome of the summit in bilateral negotiations, ignoring EU’s position. Current developments suggest that the same pattern will be repeated at the UN Paris conference next year. In mid-November 2014, the US and China agreed on a climate deal in the margins of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. For the first time since the 1990s, the US committed to reducing its CO₂ emissions (a 26-28% cut, from levels established in 2005, to be achieved by 2025). Furthermore, Washington seems to have persuaded China – the largest CO₂ emitter - to commit to climate policy targets. According to the agreement negotiated with the US, Beijing will peak its carbon emissions no later than 2030 and increase the use of non-fossil fuels to 20% by 2030.

In light of these developments, the EU can only maintain a leading role in climate action if it commits to more ambitious targets than those announced in the 2030 package. Bolder goals would strengthen the Union’s negotiating position at the Paris summit. Brussels should attempt to secure legally binding commitments on emissions reductions from the US and China, as well as coordinating with them to provide climate-friendly technology assistance to developing countries.

About the author

Marco Siddi is a research associate at the CRENoS institute in Cagliari and at the Institute for European Politics in Berlin. He has a PhD from the University of Edinburgh, where he was also Marie Curie and DAAD fellow. His research focuses on the European Union and Russia.


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