A Catch 22 for the EU

The EU Spring Council 2007 set out its stall for a new international agreement, committing the EU to a 20% reduction by 2020 compared to 1990, but also to a further 10%, i.e. to 30%, if comparable efforts were put in place by other nations.

This is then supported by Article 28 of the revised EU Emissions Trading Directive (as of December 2008) and paves the way for deeper reductions than the 20% by 2020 already catered for. In addition, the Directive also says:

In its resolution of 31 January 2008 on the outcome of the Bali Conference on Climate Change (COP 13 and COP/MOP 3), the European Parliament recalled its position that industrialised countries should commit to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 30% by 2020 and by 60-80% by 2050, compared to 1990 figures. Given that it anticipates a positive outcome to the COP 15 negotiations to be held in Copenhagen in 2009, the European Union should begin to prepare tougher emission reduction targets for 2020.

All of the above has been broadly interpreted to mean that a successful outcome in Copenagen will result in a shift of the EU target from 20% to 30%. But this throws up some difficult issues and even leaves the EU in something of a Catch 22 bind.

For starters, the Obama administration has clearly said that the US will move decisively to reduce emissions, but to a 2020 level equivalent to 1990. Given that US emissions have risen by 20% since 1990, this then reads as a 20% reduction in US emissions from current levels. By contrast, EU-27 emissions have remained flat since 1990 (actually a very slight decline), so the EU pledge of a 20% reduction since 1990 could also read as a 20% reduction in emissions from current levels.

The plateau in EU emissions comes largely from big reductions in eastern Europe, including the eastern part of Germany, following the collapse of the old Eastern Bloc. The rest of the EU has seen emission rises not dissimilar to the USA; 20+% from Austria, 10% from Denmark, 50% from Ireland, 12% from Italy and so on, with the UK being one of a very few to register a decline.

The EU situation is such that if it agrees to something in Copenhagen but then doesn’t trigger the 20% to 30% shift, it will effectively be saying that it doesn’t agree to what it has already agreed to. But equally, there is almost no possibility for the US to agree to a 20% reduction compared to 1990, let alone a 30% reduction. Even the former would represent a 40% reduction in emissions in just 10 years, hardly a plausible scenario.

The issue is “compared to 1990”. But even if it comes off the table and everybody starts to talk more sensibly about what to do from where we are now (or say 2005), Article 28 of the Directive hard wires the “compared to 1990” into the EU position. It specifically links the shift in the EU target to an EU international commitment to reduce emissions by an amount exceeding 20% compared to 1990.

This means that the EU can’t put its 20% to 30% target shift on the table as a carrot for developing countries (i.e. space in the ETS for large scale project mechanism credits), since it will not be able to trigger it because nobody will be deemed to be taking comparable action. This in turn could undermine the very process the EU is trying to encourage. Hence the catch.

Is this all legal semantics, or a real stumbling block to a solid outcome in Copenhagen. We shall see in the months to come.