Why the EU2030 climate agreement is progress

Coal powerplant view - chimneys and fumesThe new EU 2030 climate package is a messy compromise, just like every other negotiated agreement in history, but it constitutes real progress.

It is progress because we now have the most ambitious regional agreement on emissions reduction anywhere in the world. At the start of this week, five members of the European Union had a 2030 target for greenhouse gasses. At the end of this week, all 28 members had one. 

No one can complain that the UK’s carbon budgets are out of sync with the rest of Europe. No one can say we don’t have our ducks in a row to push for an ambitious climate package in Paris next year. And thanks to the magic words “at least” European leaders can push for the final outcome to be more ambitious. Given how hard they pushed for ‘flexibility’ on renewable energy and energy efficiency they will also have to ramp up their own national programmes to drive energy decarbonisation.

How it happened
Despite this conditionality, the package gives us what we need to go forward. It’s worth peering into the sausage factory of diplomatic negotiations to understand why it’s been so tough to get a 2030 agreement.

The biggest factor has been timing, and where the negotiations have fallen in the economic cycle. The 2020 package, famously agreed by Merkel and Blair, was the single biggest driver of renewable energy deployment the world has ever seen. That last package was agreed in 2007. Europe was in growth, expanding its membership and the main leaders were electorally secure. This new package has been agreed as Europe has faced its biggest economic and political crisis since the Second World War. Germany spent a lot of time at the start of the year settling its new coalition following its national election. And the UK looks ahead to the most uncertain general election in a generation.

We have never had agreement on the priorities for the package. From the summer of 2013, when the green paper was launched, through to last night, as Europe’s leaders discussed the package over dinner, everyone wanted something else. Germany saw renewable and efficiency targets as key. For the UK, it was a greenhouse gas target and the rest can go hang. Spain is desperate for an interconnection target. Poland wanted us all to go hang and leave it to building new coal plants.

A decision was meant to come at the March council. If it didn’t we were told the issue would be swept up by the new appointments for the European Commission and we might not have time to get anything settled. A decision did not come in March.

The next time the leaders got together was in June. The climate package was discussed. There was no decision in June.

If we hadn’t had a decision this week, the leaders wouldn’t have met until March 2015. That would have meant no EU package to pledge to the UN process in time for its own deadline. It would have been embarrassing and, more importantly, it would have led to a low ambition outcome from the Paris global deal. It is no secret that the US and China are watching what the EU does before deciding on how ambitious to be themselves. If we’d shown up with nothing, nothing is what the world would have got. Thank goodness we got a half decent decision last night.

Who we need to thank
We can thank a few people for helping to secure this deal. Firstly, Vladamir Putin.  It was the crisis in Ukraine that delayed a decision on the climate package in March this year, but it was the fallout of that crisis that made those countries on the eastern edge of the EU remember which side their bread was buttered. Suddenly, the once indivisible Visegrad group that had gathered around Poland in objection to a deal on climate become rather divisible. As events on their eastern borders became ever more alarming, their dependence on imported fossil fuels from that side of the border became less appealing. Perhaps they quite liked the idea of being helped to become more energy efficient after all.

Month after month, a country fell off the joint statements against the package until only Poland was left, looking as belligerent as ever but quite alone. Poland got a lot for itself from this deal, but it didn’t stop Europe continuing its journey to a modernised, low carbon 2030 economy.

Meanwhile, another group remained united and, for that, we have our second person to thank: the Rt Hon Edward Davey. It was the UK’s energy secretary that led the bringing together of the ‘Green Growth Group’, which allowed the big three of France, Germany and the UK to (largely) find their compromises and present a united front. This group grew as the Visegrad crumbled to include 13 EU nation states, and Davey and his team deserve praise for some great diplomatic footwork.

Two final figures deserve some credit. Firstly, Angela Merkel has shown throughout her career that a conservative leader can take climate change seriously and she didn’t disappoint here, staring down Poland when required, and forcing the UK to overcome an isolated suspicion of energy efficiency.  At one point it looked like we were heading for complete failure thanks to the UK’s objection to a sub target on energy efficiency. But, thankfully the PM came around to arguments from home and abroad and remembered that his priority was to lift Europe towards a higher greenhouse gas agreement. It has ensured the rest of Europe will follow the UK’s example of reducing emissions over the next fifteen years.

David Cameron therefore deserves praise for staying strong on carbon reduction and aligning Europe’s emissions trajectory to our own. Merkel was not interested in ramping up the greenhouse gas target and neither were many other member states. That it has happened is a UK victory. The space is now clear for the prime minster, should he choose, to raise the bar for the global deal in Paris.

 

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