What exactly did the EU agree on, with respect to emissions?

A week ago the ABC evening newsman said, briefly, that the EU had decided to cap its greenhouse gas emissions at 40 per cent of of its 1990 levels by 2030. As someone who tends to be a day or so ahead of the ABC’s news broadcasts, because I read much of the news online and at strange hours, I waited for the qualification. There was none. That was the news item.

Now it is true that the announcement from Brussels was couched in the tones of unanimous agreement, which was a little strange, since there had been week or two or a strong statements from leaders in Poland, Hungary and other nations in the east of the EU to the effect that they had industries to preserve and jobs to safeguard, and there was no way they would agree to further cuts.

Connie Hedegaard, the European Commissioner for climate action was really upbeatThe EU climate action commissioner is very proud that the 28 EU leaders, despite economic uncertainty and other severe international crises, were able to get their act together on this pressing climate challenge. A binding 40% CO2 reduction effort domestically in Europe is not an easy task. It can only be achieved through a major transformation in all parts of the society. That is why the EU leaders’ decision to adopt the Commission’s proposal is an ambitious and important step forward. Important not only to Europe and the Europeans, but also to the rest of the world. We have sent a strong signal to other big economies and all other countries: we have done our homework, now we urge you to follow Europe’s example.

That’s sounds pretty impressive, doesn’t it. But Connie, about whom I have written before, is a former student politician, and adept at getting across her message, which may or may not be entirely factual. Because it seems that the announcement did not include all the other clauses.

In fact, the environment activists who have inspected the agreement say that it is a watered-down compromise. Why did the EU want to produce such an agreement, anyway? The answer is that the EU had agreed in 2009 to cut emissions by up to 95 per cent by 2050 — and 2050 sounds a good way off. All being well, I’ll be 113 when that year begins. The climate activists in Brussels felt there needed to be a shorter-term target.

Anyone who has studied what can be done with alternative energy must be puzzled that the EU thinks it could reach such a target at all. You would have to build hundreds of nuclear power plants, yet nuclear energy is off the agenda in most countries, and the start-up time for a single plant is about ten years. It’s just not practicable. Solar and wind don’t provide much, tidal power is tiny and beset with difficulties, and there’s not much room left for hydro in Europe; what could be done has mostly been done.

As you can infer from Connie’s jubilation, this agreement is an instalment of the agenda for the big climate meeting in Paris next year, which is the next, and I think final, attempt to get a global agreement. If significant warming, not from an el Nino, has not resumed in a year’s time, and there seems no real sign of that happening, a global treaty that forces all countries to reduce greatly their emissions has Buckley’s chance of getting up.

But back to the EU agreement. Apparently it includes a clause that allows a reconsideration of the emissions reduction target if there is no agreement reached in Paris. And it also appears to be the case that the target to generate at least 27 per cent of of energy from renewable sources will be binding for the EU as a whole, but not for individual members. If that is the case, then the target will not be reached.

The outcome, then, is a resounding statement that means nothing. Poland’s Prime Minister came away satisfied that there would be no interference with Poland’s reliance on coal-powered electricity, and coal as the basis for its heavy industry. If that is the case, then some other countries within the EU are going to have to do what is now known as ‘the heavy lifting’. All in all, you could argue that the European leaders put a stern and united face on it all for the benefit of the green lobby, and made sure that they did not in fact have to do anything.

You can read an insightful analysis by Nick Butler of the problem facing the EU in a Financial Times website. He says that the EU energy-transition policy was based on four propositions, each of which is no longer valid:

 * fossil fuel prices would rise inexorably as global demand exceeded supply;
 * Europe could gain a material competitive advantage by being the first major region in the world to develop a low-carbon economy based on renewables;
 * a gradually rising carbon price would increase the cost of externalities including air pollution and climate change, until renewables became fully competitive;
 * the negative effects of higher energy costs on competitiveness would be mitigated by a global deal with all the world’s major economies making progress towards the common goal of reducing emissions.

So, back to the ABC. You might think that some of the complexity that I have outlined here — all available in European news sources — would be part of the ABC’s expert, professional news coverage. But it wasn’t. Some unkind listeners might think that here you have a classical example of ABC ‘spin’. But I prefer to think that that the reason was simply that there was just too much important news in other areas. After all, as the bumper stickers keep telling me, it’s ‘my ABC’.


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