Benny Peiser: The Paris Climate Conference and Europe’s Red Line

  • Date: 29/05/15
  • Benny Peiser, Global Warming Policy Forum

Keynote address to the Solidarność Trade Union Climate Conference (pdf)

Katowice, Poland 29 May 2015


  1. The failure of the EU’s unilateral climate policy
  2. The EU’s new climate strategy and its contradictions
  3. What happens if the EU’s current climate policy fails in Paris?

The failure of the EU’s unilateral climate policy

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the European Union has committed to unilateral efforts to tackle climate change. It has felt it a duty

It was this expectation of accelerating global warming that drove the EU, back in 1996, to adopt a global temperature target, saying that it should not exceed 2 degrees above the pre-industrial level.

They can hardly have guessed that in the decades that followed, instead of the predicted rapid warming, the global surface temperature would essentially come to a standstill. Instead of accelerated global warming there has been no rise in average global surface temperature for nearly 20 years.

The EU’s assumptions about energy prices were equally mistaken.

With the onset of the shale revolution in the US and the prospect of a global expansion of unconventional oil and gas exploration there is now seen to be no lack of fossil fuels. In fact we have sufficient conventional and unconventional energy to meet the world’s needs for most of this century. Fossil fuel prices have fallen and look set to remain low for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, instead of making Europe more competitive, astronomical subsidies for renewables – nearly 1 trillion  

The costs

If someone like Mr Tajani can say that Europe’s industry is being sacrificed on the altar of unrealistic climate goals, other leaders should listen.

Tajani has not been alone in sounding the alarm over the costs of unilateral climate policy.

Gunther Oettinger, the EU’s then energy commissioner, declared last September that the EU should not adopt new binding CO2 targets unless all major emitters do likewise. He pointed out that if they were imposed unilaterally, the result of such targets would be the export of production and emissions outside the EU.

And since it is the developing nations whose CO2 emissions are increasing rapidly, Oettinger rightly stated the obvious, namely that anyone who thinks that cutting Europe’s CO2 emissions would make any difference to global warming is “arrogant or stupid”.

Oettinger pointed out that the EU was responsible for just over 10% of global CO2 emissions today, a sum that would fall to 4.5% in 2030.

The EU’s new climate policy

When confronted with these concerns and faced with the threat of a Polish veto, EU leaders agreed a new approach to climate policy.

Gone is the focus on unilateral target-setting and green idealism. Instead the EU is now offering a conditional pledge linked to an unconditional demand.

The pledge is a new target for CO2 emissions, cutting them by 40% below the 1990 level by 2030. But critically, this pledge is conditional on the Paris agreement being legally binding for all countries.

The conditional nature of the EU’s CO2 pledge was clearly spelled out by the European Council in its 2030 Climate and Energy Policy Framework agreement adopted last October.

It states that with regards to its 2030 pledge

In February, the European Commission followed up with a document that communicated the EU’s red line for the Paris climate summit.

In this document called, The Paris Protocol, the Commission demands that all nations represented at the Paris summit should sign what it calls the “Paris Protocol” and adopt legally binding CO2 emissions targets similar to and as a carry-over of the Kyoto Protocol.

According to EU’s red line, the Paris Protocol must deliver,

“legally binding mitigation commitments that put the world on track towards achieving the below 2°C objective…. Mitigation commitments under the Protocol should be equally legally binding on all Parties.”

Yet the chances of such an agreement remain slim.

For a start, an international protocol or treaty with legally binding CO2 emissions targets would have to be ratified by national parliaments. This is unlikely to happen in the US, given the Republican majority in both houses.

Republican Senators have already warned governments that Obama’s climate pledge is non-binding and will be contested by the US Senate.

Republican senators are not alone either. It was reported last year that many EU member states and at least five EU commissioners had been pushing for a reduced CO2 target of 35%.

Moreover, Poland and other member states remain opposed to any new binding targets in the absence of a legally-binding UN agreement.

There are strong indications from Poland and other Visegrad nations that the 40% emissions pledge would be an unacceptable burden if other major economies did not follow suit.

Many former Warsaw Pact states continue to rely on Russian gas imports for their energy needs. Many fear that new unilateral CO2 limits would make coal power generation unviable and consequently lead to an even greater dependence on Russia.

The prospect of increasing renewable energy sources is also an unappealing prospect. Governments in Eastern Europe look at Germany where, as a result of astronomical subsidies, domestic consumers are paying the second highest amount for electricity in the EU.

But it is the position of the developing nations that makes a binding treaty an unlikely outcome for Paris.

China and India have consistently made clear their view that CO2 targets should only be binding for developed nations. In their view, and that of the other 24 members of the so-called Like-Minded Developing Countries group, developing nations should be exempt.

China and India are countering Western pressure to fall into line by demanding a legally binding compensation package of $100 billion per year, as promised by President Obama at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009.

They are resisting attempts by the US and the EU to end the legal distinction between developing and developed nations, and it is likely that they will still be holding out in Paris at the end of the year.

They have also stated repeatedly that they will not allow any outside body to review their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions and reject any form of international review as a violation of their sovereignty.

In the face of this hard line from the developing world, it is hard to see any kind of legally binding targets being agreed in Paris.

What happens if the EU’s climate strategy fails in Paris?

Given that UN climate deals have to be agreed by consensus, it is almost certain that the EU’s key demand will be rejected by most of the developing nations.

It is equally likely that all parties involved, the EU and the US on the one hand and China and India on the other, will proclaim victory after the final Paris agreement is signed.

Nevertheless, there are considerable uncertainties about what will happen to the EU’s conditional 2030 pledge in such circumstances.

The European Council would only be able to make its 40% emissions reduction pledge legally binding if all Member States accepted new, nationally binding CO2 targets under a Burden Sharing Mechanism.

However, in the event that the Paris conference fails to make its nationally determined mitigation pledges legally binding, the EU should abandon or at least delay making its own 40% pledge legally binding.

Alternatively, EU leaders could simply agree to make the 40% pledge binding at EU, but not at national levels.

Such a soft exit strategy would emulate the EU’s dodgy renewable energy target for 2030 which, while being called a EU-wide and binding target, does not oblige members states to adopt any legally binding renewables targets domestically.

And since the 27% EU-wide green energy target is unenforceable, no country will be punished for failing to meet any target.

This option would provide a logical and justifiable exit from unilateral self-sacrifice and would allow member states to decide their climate and energy policies domestically and back in line with their national interest.

Poland’s role 

Finally, let me return to the crucial role Poland plays in navigating the future of Europe’s climate and energy policy.

In January, President-Elect Mr Duda criticised the 2030 climate package in the European Parliament. He pointed out that the EU had been trying to persuade the rest of the world to follow its decarbonisation policy:

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