Close, but no cigar. That was the general reaction to the EU decision last week to lift its ambition on emissions reductions, renewable energy and energy efficiency.
The EU announced it had reached a deal to lift its emissions reduction target to a cut of 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030, lift the penetration of renewable energy to 27 per cent of total energy use by the same date, and to set an equivalent energy efficiency target.
It was claimed as a significant breakthrough by the EU itself, even if it disappointed others on the scale of its ambition. It was, after all, just the first substantive gesture by any of the major emitters in the lead up to the crucial climate talks in Paris next year; the opening gambit in a game of chess that will ultimately be heavily dominated by the major players, the king and queen of greenhouse emissions, China and the US.
Environmental NGOs were aghast that the EU undertaking was the bare minimum of what is required to meet the EU’s own long-term targets, and complained that the EU had missed its chance for leadership. Even the business lobby groups had wanted more biting and certain targets. Utilities analysts felt the fossil fuel industry got off lightly.
But in reality it is just the first engagement of what will be a vigorous international process that will continue for the next 15 months and beyond. The key language is that the EU aims for a target of “at least” 40 per cent reductions. In reality, it will need to be much higher.
“That sends a strong signal to the international community and I hope that the signal is being received today in Washington, in Beijing and other big economies so that they will prepare their ambitions accordingly,” EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said in an interview with Bloomberg. “Now investors, businesses, everyone will know that this is where we are headed – these are the targets.”
Still, even if it was a messy compromise, it has an impact on what is happening, and will happen, in Australia. Firstly, it puts paid to the claim in Australian government circles that the EU is not acting. Europe continues to regard carbon pricing as its primary mechanism, and has now agreed to extend it “economy-wide” to agriculture, buildings, and transport; and its renewables target covers all energy – so it actually translates into a target of more than 40 per cent of electricity to be provided by wind, solar, hydro, biomass and other renewable sources by 2030.
In Australia, meanwhile, the carbon price has been dumped and the government is now arguing that legislation should be changed from a fixed target to one that ensures that renewable energy does not exceed 20 per cent by 2020. By doing so, Australia is seeking to become the first country to reduce the scope of its ambition, in much the same way that it has become the first to dump its carbon price.
This has key implications for the role that Australia plays on the international stage. Delegates were aghast in Poland last year when Australia, under the Abbott government, projected its domestic rhetoric into the international arena. A country that had been seen as a constructive and progressive member of the climate talks now became seen as a spoiler.
In this sense, the EU negotiations gave a fascinating insight into global climate change talks, which were also holding a key meeting in Bonn last week, in the prelude to Lima in December and Paris next year.
On the international stage Australia plays a similar role to Poland in Europe. The two countries have much in common: their leaders share a tenuous hold on climate science, a grim determination to extract coal and use it for electricity, don’t like carbon pricing and are trying to keep a lid on renewables.
The key to Paris is what targets individual countries will agree to, how they are imposed, and how they are measured. The preliminary arguments in Bonn last week, and Lima in December, will be about agreeing what sort of information should be included in the target.
Australia was one of the more prominent speakers in Bonn against the idea that the target should be vetted. That, at least, is consistent with its attempts to abolish independent scrutiny by abolishing the Climate Commission and attempting to do the same with the Climate Change Authority, which said earlier this year that if Australia is serious about meeting the global target, and matching global efforts, then it should lift its 5 per cent reduction target for 2020 to 19 per cent.
The actions of Poland show the ability of a minor-to-middle power to thwart the ambitions of bigger players – in this case Germany, France and the UK. So while it is correct to say that the actions of China and the US hold the key to success in Paris, there is no doubt that the likes of Australia, Poland and Russia have the ability to thwart climate goals.
Poland was quite unapologetic about its tactics, which delivered free carbon permits worth more than $1 billion and promises for funds to help it “modernize” is coal-fired plants after 2020.
Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz said after the summit that the threat of veto was simply a “tool” to get the best conditions for Poland’s economy. “Nobody got compensated like we did,” she boasted after the meeting.
Still, the Climate Institute’s Erwin Jackson says the EU’s announcement yet again underscores how much the rest of the world, and Australia’s major trading partners like the EU, China and the US, are leaping ahead of Australia, while we are going backwards,” says Erwin Jackson.
He describes that EU announcement as just an opening gambit, as major emitters are now defining what their post 2020 emissions reduction targets will look like. And whether they will meet the 2°C target that everyone signed up for in Copenhagen, and have reaffirmed in every conference since.
Exactly how the world will achieve that commitment is what the Paris talks are all about. And the ability of EU go reach an agreement – albeit an imperfect one – gives an important pointer as to how a global agreement might emerge, and the role that Australia might play.