2015 – a year for the EU to rebuild climate diplomacy links

Latvia has made climate action a priority of its EU Council presidency, so where next for the bloc?

Laimdota Straujuma, prime minister of Latvia, is making climate change a priority in her country's 6-month presidency of the EU council (Pic: Flickr/Saeima)

Laimdota Straujuma, prime minister of Latvia, is making climate change a priority in her country’s 6-month presidency of the EU council (Pic: Flickr/Saeima)

By Ed King

The incoming Latvian presidency of the EU will make planning for a global climate change deal a priority issue, it said in its manifesto for the next six months.

“One of the most important items on the Presidency’s agenda will be the preparations for a global agreement on a climate change regime for the post-2020 period,” the Riga government said.

The UN hopes to seal an international agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions in Paris at the end of 2015. The next round of talks is scheduled for Geneva in February.

In a 36-page document released this week, Latvia said energy and climate allied to the post-2015 development agenda would be a key focus while in office.

It promised to deliver a framework for EU wide energy links next month, and outline how a proposed €315bn investment package would be spent.

“The Presidency will devote its efforts to ensuring that the discussions on the Energy Union concept are launched in early February and the main principles are defined within the first quarter of 2015.”

Those efforts to promote energy unity were boosted by news this week that grid operators in France, Spain and Portugal had signed off on a plan to link up the three countries.

That will make it easier to manage variable wind and solar power generation on the Iberian peninsula.

Norway and the UK also look set to agree a €2 billion deal to link up their electricity grids.

Further efforts are expected on promoting smart grids, smart meters and energy efficient buildings.

Later this month Brussels is also expected to publish plans for a market stability reserve for its under-fire carbon trading scheme.

Officials hope this will ensure better control over the supply of EU carbon credits, which have flooded the market, ensuring the price of carbon pollution remains low.

EU investment in power infrastructure could help get more renewables online (Pic: Flickr/Janie Easterman)

EU investment in power infrastructure could help get more renewables online (Pic: Flickr/Janie Easterman)

But these relatively small commitments come at a time when the EU’s wider reputation as a climate champion is being questioned inside and outside the bloc.

“The EU needs to work on its diplomatic alliances. If it doesn’t it could become quite powerless, because deals are made between big countries,” says Jan Kowalzig, Oxfam Germany’s climate advisor

That lack of clout was highlighted at the recent round of UN climate talks in Lima, where the EU seemed on the periphery of negotiations in the closing stages. It left the US, China and India to thrash out the details of a text that lays the foundations for the proposed 2015 accord.

In 2011 and 2012 Brussels led a 114-strong coalition of countries, backed by the Least Developed Countries and Alliance of Small Island States. Now it seems a lone group and internally divided.

Its flagship 2030 climate and energy strategy was agreed last year after hard bargaining. It promised emissions cuts of “at least” 40%.

That was lower than many green groups and analysts had called for and left many questioning how committed the 28 member states are to green growth.

Further ambition?

The intensity of that debate makes any further ambition in 2015 unlikely, according to Severin Fischer an associate at SWP, a think-tank in Berlin.

“I would have doubts there could be anything else,” he says. “I think when it comes to climate targets the EU was as close to the maximum that was possible.

“I don’t see there would be any give to do more. In some extent the EU is waiting for others to do more.”

Further questions over the commitment of EU states to tougher climate regime were highlighted this week with the release of a UK and Czech proposal to ensure all regulations are “light touch and non-legislative”.

“Such flexibility is critical for cost-effective decarbonisation across the EU and the Commission should adopt a light touch governance system that focuses on collective delivery of EU energy goals while reflecting the need for national flexibility,” read the document, labelled a non-paper.

The UK government came in for further criticism after Greenpeace revealed it had given £1.7bn of loans to companies in Russia, Brazil and Saudi Arabia engaged in fossil fuel exploration, despite a 2010 pledge to stop these flows.


Where Brussels may be able to demonstrate leadership is through its development of an effective governance structure for the 2030 deal.

This, says Martin Schoenberg a former German government official now advising Climate Change Capital, an asset management firm, could offer a clue on how a loose 2015 climate agreement could work.

“This will definitely be something where member states first take initiative and the EU Commission assess those – keeping score and making sure they meet their overall targets,” he says.

“It will be a bit similar to the UNFCCC [the UN’s climate body] but maybe more robust.”

Fischer says the EU 2030 package will be marked by its focus on national plans, “fundamentally different” to the more centrist 2020 climate and energy targets.

Renewable and efficiency targets will not be binding, but overall he expects a “more coherent and comprehensive approach” led by national governments who understand better how fast their energy systems can adapt.

“The positive impact in the EU has always been incremental small steps,” he adds.

But if the bloc’s goal of an energy union and an end to its reliance on Russian gas is to be achieved, internal rivalries will need to be ditched, says Eamon Ryan, Ireland’s energy minister from 2007-2011 and now head of the country’s Green Party.

“We have power exchanges and trade but not organised in a way that would really reduce costs – that’s down to blinkered nationalist perspectives,” he says.

Ryan fears that a diminished Commission and increasingly powerful EU Council, dominated by national leaders, will contrive to make common agreements harder.

Regional alliances – particularly over electricity grids – could be one way to get past this, he believes, as they are politically easier to sell to domestic electorates, and look less like Brussels meddling.

Investment drive

All the analysts RTCC spoke to agree on one thing. The €315bn “investment offensive” over the next three years will likely determine the EU’s green growth trajectory.

Billed by the bloc’s president Jean-Claude Juncker as the “greatest effort in recent EU history to mobilize the EU budget”, it is still unclear exactly what types of projects will receive funding.

For instance, will investments in fossil fuel facilities that could be at risk if the world agrees on a rapid decarbonisation plan be allowed under the plans?

Or will Juncker sanction big investments in roads and airports as opposed to cleaner forms of transport?

A wish list from countries has already been released, published on the website of Brussels-based climate activist Mark Johnstone in December.

Running at over 600 pages and 2000 projects, it includes pitches for carbon capture and storage plants in the UK, coal power stations in Poland, as well as other ‘greener’ objectives across the EU such as broadband roll-outs and new train tunnels.

It’s left some worried about the fund’s long-term impact. “There’s a real risk this will not be aligned with the 2030 objectives,” says Schoenberg.

Ryan says EU leaders need to think big, and allow their climate targets to stimulate growth and kickstart what is a rapidly faltering economy.

“There’s still potential for that to happen,” he says, “and it’s a test for the union in the next six months.

“Can it turn words into a plan, turn what has been an admirable objective into large scale investment into infrastructure that will allow it to meet its climate goals?”

This may require a boldness EU leaders have so far declined to display, and a unity than often looks beyond the 28 countries, which sit on different growth trajectories.

Rebuilding alliances

Above all, says Ryan, it needs better guidance from the EU’s three main players, France, Germany and the UK, all of whom have their own domestic crises.

The stakes are perhaps highest for the French, hosts of this year’s climate summit, and tasked with pulling together over 190 countries in an agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions once and for all.

The UN climate chief admits that whatever is agreed in Paris is unlikely to be enough to limit warming to below 2C, an international target that if broken could herald higher numbers of floods, heatwaves and droughts.

The EU could regain some credibility, says Oxfam’s Kowalzig, by admitting now that Paris will not be the end, and that it is committed to exploring further options to reduce its own emissions.

The 2030 climate deal commits the bloc to a target of “at least” 40% carbon cuts by 2030. He says an indication it could go to 50% would help it rebuild trust with former allies.

“The most important thing is for an openness to say we are aware this will not be enough below 2C and we are willing to discuss collective action with everyone – this would be something to signal early on,” Kowalzig says.

“The US and China have made their deal. The EU needs alliances with other countries. If not before Paris – it must say it will do it afterwards.”

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