You would imagine a tougher target for 2050 would require more action sooner but it appears our politicians are happy to kick that problem into the long grass for future politicians to wrestle with, with the increasing impact of climate change they have so thoughtfully bequeathed them. The deal also continues to ignore the fact that we should be debating a target for 2015. If a system like Kyoto is to continue then this would be the next milestone in the emissions timeline.
Far from being in the lead, the EU, like most countries, is a laggard when it comes to responding effectively to the threat of climate change – but it is very good at presentation. Our targets use a 1990 baseline. Nothing wrong with that, except it is a very convenient date for countries that benefitted from the huge collapse in Soviet economies in the 1990s, which of course now includes Europe.
The combination of this unearned reduction with a handful of one-off reductions in industrial gases in a few countries delivered Europe its Kyoto target ahead of schedule and we are set to achieve a 10% reduction by the end of this decade – helped along by the current recession. The 30% target is therefore only a 20% target measured from current levels. Again this may sound reasonably challenging. But this also masks the reality that Europe will allow itself to buy in emissions credits from overseas for up to half of this target. Meaning Europe’s own emissions need be reduced by only 10% over a decade.
The European Union has, over a number of years, claimed to be leading the world in reducing emissions. It has introduced a range of policies to try to curb emissions but these have been slow to start and dedicated climate and energy policies have delivered few savings to date. This is evident not only from the emissions record so far of the EU but also from the continued unbroken link between emissions and economic growth or decline.
Investment in energy infrastructure also appears not to have deviated significantly from “business as usual”, with many more coal-fired power stations being proposed in Europe. Cap and trade regulation has been implemented on 50% of emissions, however, they have been set too leniently, leading to large surpluses in emissions permits and low prices.
More investment is now being made into renewable electricity but this is still too insignificant on its own to achieve a significant reduction in all energy-related emissions. The harder tasks of reducing emissions from coal-fired power stations and industrial plants and de-carbonising our transport and heating systems has yet to begin in earnest. As a result, emissions in recent years, the effect of the recent recession aside, have been more or less static.
Only tougher targets will provide the impetus for serious policy change and investment on the ground. There are many reasons why Europe can and must step up to the mark in Copenhagen. Sandbag, the climate NGO that I run, will be launching a briefing paper in Brussels next week explaining why Europe’s targets are nowhere near as tough as they think they are and calling for a recalibration and higher ambition.
The current politics of Europe are not easy and there are some countries who are arguing against even the current levels of ambition. But rather than trying to cling on to the vestiges of leadership using clever accounting, Europe should be honest about what the numbers mean and accept that it can and must go further.
The sleight of hand has not gone unnoticed by other countries and if Europe continues to fail to pull its weight it will be impossible to win the support of developing countries who rightly point out we have a massive historic responsibility to lead the way.
• Bryony Worthington is the founder of Sandbag, a not-for-profit website that allows its members to buy up carbon emissions trading permits