It turns out tough compromises and substantive problem-solving may be something national governments can still do.
On the subject of climate change, American politics has remained mired in gridlock after the failure of the national cap-and-trade bill in 2009. That has forced the Obama Administration to aim for a modest reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of 17 percent below their 2005 levels by 2020 — to be achieved through regulatory efforts grounded in unilateral and pre-existing executive authority.
But on Friday morning, the European Union showed America up, striking an initial deal to legally require its member countries to cut their GHG emissions 40 percent below their 1990 levels by 2030. It’s the first substantive offer from any member of the international community ahead of the United Nations climate talks that will be held in Paris in 2015.
The agreement came on the second day of a two-day meeting of the European Council, following up a long night of haggling over how to share the burden of the reductions. The plan is for the 40 percent target to eventually be divvied up into individual and legally binding requirements for each E.U. member country, based on how much effort their economy can shoulder. Two other targets for 2030 were also agreed upon: to increase energy efficiency 27 percent and to get 27 percent of the E.U.’s power from renewable sources by that time. The efficiency target could also be updated to 30 percent, pending a review in 2020.
Now, the European Council has no official lawmaking power, and can only recommend policy. It will be up to the European Commission to propose the specific legislation and to the European Parliament to pass it. But this morning’s deal is at least an initial sign that the necessary political compromises and understandings are in place to move the policymaking forward.
The biggest compromise was with Poland, which — along with other Eastern European countries — has argued that it’s poorly positioned to make large GHG reductions thanks to its less-developed economy and enormous reliance on coal for power generation. According to the Guardian, the deal will compensate Poland for its reductions to the tune of 15 to 20 billion euros ($19 to $25 billion) between 2020 to 2030. Other concessions included making the efficiency target non-binding — meaning it would effectively operate on the honor system — and making the renewable energy target legally binding for the E.U. as a whole, but not for any individual country. That gives countries greater flexibility over the makeup of their energy mix and just how they go about cutting their emissions — an arrangement members like Great Britain argued for — but it also raises practical questions about just how the target would be enforced.
But when it comes to climate change, the GHG emissions are where the rubber meets the road. The biggest tool for meeting that target will likely be the E.U.’s emissions trading scheme (ETS) — a cap-and-trade system similar to what the U.S. attempted to pass in 2009 — which itself will require some updates to fulfill that role. The deal would also extend a “cap and trade approach” to sectors like agriculture, buildings, and transport which have so far fallen outside the jurisdiction of the ETS.
As the New York Times pointed out, serious action on climate change is a bigger lift for Europe than it used to be. The failure to reach a global climate deal during the last round of international talks in Copenhagen in 2009 sapped much of the political momentum for action. The massive global recession in 2008 and the arrival of cheap natural gas from shale fracking did not help either. The Fukishima disaster in 2011 also inspired Germany to retire its fleet of nuclear power plants which, despite waste-disposal issues and the small but real risk of meltdowns, also deliver massive amounts of carbon-free energy.
A recent analysis predicted that even if the international community hammered out an agreement based the commitments most nations are likely to make or have been gesturing towards, it would not be enough to keep the world under 2°C of global warming. An official with the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also recently described the 40 percent target for 2030 “too little too late.”
But all that said, both French President Francois Hollande and President Barack Obama have explained that an international climate agreement cannot happen absent trust and good will. And the only way to build those things is for countries to step up and say what they’re willing to contribute to the effort.