UK has “vital” role in protecting the climate

The UK is critical to the success of Europe’s decarbonisation plan and a global climate deal in Paris

Negotiators aim to strike a global climate deal in Paris next year (Pic: Flickr/James Whitesmith)

Negotiators aim to strike a global climate deal in Paris next year
(Pic: Flickr/James Whitesmith)

By Joseph Curtin

Next year will be crucial for climate protection. The international community is gearing up to agree a climate treaty in Paris in December 2015 and the leadership of the United Kingdom is vital for a positive outcome.

The stakes are high. In 2009 world leaders failed to agree a meaningful treaty in Copenhagen, and concentrations of heat-trapping gasses continue to accumulate in the atmosphere reaching levels unprecedented in human history. In the words of Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the UN’s climate science body, the window of opportunity is closing fast.

A new approach to break the deadlock is on the table. Instead of binding international targets being imposed from above, countries are being asked to make their own pledges to reduce emissions by early next year.

The problem with asking everyone what they would like to contribute, rather than trying to determine what they should contribute is that ambition suffers. If you add together all stated or anticipated pledges, and assume that they are all met, global warming exceeds 3 degrees by 2100, and it could go a lot higher.

Climate train

But the metaphor of a train is useful in this respect. An inclusive agreement with all on board can speed up over time, but if no one is on board, is it of any consequence how fast the train travels?

The signs are positive that China and the US, the world’s two biggest polluters, may be willing to act. Yet the momentum that the European Union generates is absolutely essential for a positive global response.

EU leaders gathered in Brussels on October 23 to agree a framework on climate protection for the period to 2030. The spectre of a Polish veto being evoked to protect its coal industry never materialised, and against considerable odds it was unanimously agreed that the EU would deliver “at least” a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 1990.

This sounds ambitious. The formulation involving “at least”, promoted by the UK and Germany, suggests that the EU may be prepared to speed up over time, depending on how fast the other carriages of the train can move. It was well received by international leaders such as the secretary general of the UN, Ban Ki-Moon, and was necessary in order to sustain momentum along the road to an international climate agreement in Paris in 2015.

Report card

An Institute of International and European Affairs report card on the EU’s framework, published today, however, suggests that this target may not be quite as ambitious as it seems, and that proposals tabled by the UK could be essential to a successful outcome.

The EU’s flagship emissions trading scheme (ETS), covering almost half of all emissions, is beset with an over-supply of credits and depressed carbon prices. As a result, coal powered generation remains attractive in the EU, even though it is disastrous from a climate perspective.

A key issue with the agreed framework is that companies can use cheap international carbon credits that they have already purchased to meet this target. This could critically undermine the real rate of decarbonisation if it is not addressed.

Reform proposals agreed as part of the leaders’ blueprint, while far from cosmetic, do not do resolve the core problem. The market hardly reacted, with carbon prices barley budging from a lowly €6 per permit. A UK government proposal to fast track reforms and permanently cancel some credits could fix the scheme by increasing the price of polluting for big emitters. It deserves careful consideration.

In order to achieve unanimity, several sweeteners were also included for Eastern European countries that further weaken the scheme. We suggest that strings could be attached to these sweeteners, which would ensure that investment flows to low carbon technologies.

Furthermore, the 27% targets agreed for both renewables and efficiency improvements by 2030 barely go beyond current investment plans. The weakness of these targets was largely a result of UK intervention. In our analysis we take issue with the UK position that a target for energy efficiency could not deliver significant dividends, and this is another area that could be revisited in ongoing negotiations.

National targets

EU leaders dodged perhaps the thorniest issue of all: emissions targets for individual countries. Countries such as the UK and Germany have ambitious targets in place, but most are waiting for the EU outcome to guide their efforts. Targets will apply to all sectors not covered by the ETS, in other words emissions from transport, heating buildings and agriculture.

While the conclusions recognised the limited potential to reduce emissions from agriculture for the first time, further to an Irish proposal, the implications for national targets are as yet unclear. It is all to play for in ongoing negotiations. Apportionment will be thrashed out in the coming months, and countries will be looking over the European Commission’s shoulders as it tries to develop a formula that everyone can live with.

It is easy to be critical. Climate policy is difficult for political leaders to grapple with, and they are rarely rewarded by electorates for doing so. If we take a step back it is remarkable in many ways that 28 countries unanimously approved this framework in the absence of similar commitments from other major players.

Nevertheless, the evidence base underpinning key aspects of the leaders’ blueprint is unclear. In particular, our analysis suggests that reforms to the ETS do not go far enough and that the more ambitious approach tabled by the UK could be the key to a successful outcome. Otherwise questions marks will continue to hang over the EU’s decarbonisation master plan, which could undermine its credibility internationally.

Joseph Curtin is senior research fellow at the Institute of International and European Affairs, Dublin. The report “Understanding the European Conclusions on Climate: A 10-Step Guide” is available to download from

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