The EU: Significant Tensions

While EU climate ambitions may appear impressive, they mask significant political tension and differing interests within the EU.  

By Jon Birger Skjærseth, FNI

In 2014, the 28 EU leaders apparently delivered on the EU’s low-carbon strategy towards 2050 by adopting a climate and energy policy framework for 2030, including a new goal of domestic GHG reductions of at least 40 per cent compared to 1990. The 40 per cent target served as the EU’s proposed commitment to the Paris Agreement. And while EU climate ambitions may appear impressive, they mask significant political tension and differing interests within the EU. Poland and a group of Central and Eastern European countries dependent on domestically produced coal do not favor the EU’s long term climate ambitions. 

After Paris, the European Union reverted to the 2030 framework. The positive responses to the dynamic long-term agreement, including the aspirational 1.5 degree target, were used by green groups and other frontrunners to argue for tighter EU targets and policies. However, the key message from the Commission and the Council disappointed the green groups—the 2030 targets were to remain unchanged. The EU's number one priority in following up the Paris Agreement is to adopt binding climate and energy policies which were planned before the agreement signed under COP21.  

The Commission has proposed several climate and energy policies for 2030. These include:  

  • A revised emissions trading system for power production, industry and aviation that includes a market stability reserve for removing surplus of allowances from the carbon market;  
  • A revised distribution of binding national targets and flexibility mechanisms for curbing emissions from those sectors that are not covered by the trading system (transport, agriculture, buildings, waste, small industry);  
  • New binding rules for accounting emissions and removals from land use and forestry.  

The related energy policy proposals for 2030 include, amongst others:  

  • Measures to attain 27 per cent renewable energy consumption at EU-level. Non-binding targets for advanced biofuels and renewables in heating and cooling;  
  • Stepping up binding energy efficiency targets at EU-level from 27 per cent (as agreed in 2014) to 30 per cent.
  • Strengthening of existing energy efficiency legislation;
  • A new governance system to ensure compliance with EU-level targets;  
  • A new electricity market design strengthening the consumers position in the market;
  • Strengthening low-carbon research and innovation    

In conclusion, the main political impact of the Paris Agreement so far seems to be to justify EU climate and energy targets adopted mainly prior to COP21. This may help to delegitimize opposition and make it more difficult for laggards within the Union to question EU climate policy. It may also facilitate the adoption of proposed climate and energy legislation before 2018 for attaining 2030 targets.  

The EU confronts at least three main political challenges in fulfilling its commitment for the Paris Agreement by 2030 and beyond.  

First, the policies proposed by the Commission need to be adopted by the Council and European Parliament. Second, trade-offs between climate and energy policies should be avoided. For example, policies that stimulate energy efficiency and renewables in the emissions trading sectors contribute to reduce demand for allowances, increase the allowance surplus and collapse in the carbon price. Finally, EU-level policies need to be implemented by member states to spur the transition towards decarbonization. This may lead to a snowball effect, generating positive feedback from implementation and facilitating further steps. Or, the first steps may be the easy ones—and then, when attempts are made to tighten up ambitions, the increasing costs from implementation may provoke greater resistance from member states.