Europeans Propose Softer Targets for Emissions Reductions

The European Commission has proposed revisions to the EU’s commitments to emissions reduction targets citing the high cost of fossil fuel alternatives at a time of economic uncertainty. The new EC proposal involves moving from binding targets for individual countries to an all-Europe standard that would grow from a 20 percent reduction by 2020 to a 40 percent reduction by 2030.

There’s clearly a lot of pressure behind the scenes by people worried about the economy, governments who fear they will not be able to achieve their targets, and the oil and gas industries, who have vested interests in maintaining their hegemony as long as they can.

The move to end the binding targets that were set, country by country, in exchange for a Europe-wide goal raises an important question. How are they going to enforce it? If 2030 comes and all of Europe falls short, who are they going to penalize and how are they going assess the penalty? The implementation of this seems quite vague.

The new proposed target of 40 percent reduction sounds good, after all, it’s double the 20 percent goal by 2020, which they’re well positioned to meet—and 40 percent reduction is pretty aggressive compared to what we’re doing in the U.S. But if you look at what Europe has already accomplished, they’re already on track to meet that. There’s no acceleration in the rate of reduction. The message is, just stay the course and by 2030, with continuing reductions, we should hit 40 percent. The only caveat there is that the current trend is based on the fact that Europe's  economy is pretty slow right now. Should the economy pick up, it’s going to be more of a challenge to hit that target.

That concern is shared by Gunther Oettinger, the EU's Energy Commissioner. Oettinger has said that the easy reductions came first, and that additional reductions will be increasingly difficult. He also said that Europe's carbon contribution, which is 10.5% of the world total today, would drop to 4.5% if the goal is met, too small to really make a difference.

Others would argue that all entities have a moral obligation to do everything they can. That's the position taken by Brook Riley, who is the Friends of the Earth chairman in the region. Riley has said that Jose Manuel Baroso, president of the European Commission, who announced the proposal, is subscribing to the “old think” industry spin that there has to be a tradeoff between climate action and economic recovery. That’s based on an outdated model.

I personally agree with Riley. There’s a mind set that says, “this is the way our economy must operate,” a premise based on centralized energy sources managed by big companies. First of all, it’s shortsighted—many people have weighed in to say we can absolutely improve the economy while we switch to a more sustainable energy policy. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute is one of the more notable voices. His two books on the subject, WinningThe Oil Endgame and ReInventing Fire lay out the path forward. These books describe how we can move to an 80 percent renewable-based economy by 2050, at a profit, while saving $5 trillion in the process. The problem is, you have to really look outside the box, something that Lovins does particularly well.

Of course, to get there, you’ve got to make some investments up front. And the entrenched interests are saying we can’t afford to. That’s short term thinking. Ultimately, we’re talking about trillions of dollars in value. The EU’s proposal is not only short sighted but it’s looking in the rear view mirror as it’s running down the road, looking at the way things used to be. The energy industry is already changing—it’s in the midst of a dramatic transformation. And, as Riley has pointed out, the costs associated with climate disruption are enormous and growing. They threaten to overwhelm the investment needed to get us down the path to renewables. It’s a head in the sand approach. If we do nothing, the Hurricane Sandy’s are going to keep coming and those costs are going to accelerate and they’re going to be beyond anything we have to do to move toward a more renewable energy policy.

It’s true that Europe's electricity costs have been twice as much as those in the U.S. for some time. Europe doesn't have the coal reserves that we have. And they haven’t been able to participate in the natural gas boom that we’re experiencing here. Natural gas doesn’t ship easily. That gives some manufacturers in the U.S. a competitive advantage. So there is a reality to Europe’s complaint of a competitive disadvantage due to high energy costs. That needs to be factored in, but it still has to be weighed against the overarching reality of climate change.

In an ideal world, we'd like to think of our government leaders as the ones who are going to look at the big picture, take the long term view, and make the hard choices that say, we may have to suffer in the short term to get the best outcome down the road. The EU had been holding the line in a way that’s been absolutely inspiring, but now they’re starting to give in to more short-sighted concerns.

With the R&D that we’ve seen, the kind of technology that’s already available, and with the breakthroughs we’re seeing every day, if we could just get the government policies to align with what’s needed, we could make remarkable progress. But as of today, progress is not being made nearly fast enough as it is, and slowing down is not something that those of us who look down the road want to hear.