Columnists: Brook Riley, Rockwool International

Published at: 11 Apr 2016

Commission’s climate department blocking steeper emissions cuts

What does the Paris Agreement mean for the EU's 2030 greenhouse gas emissions target? Nothing at all, according to the European Commission's climate action department. In its post-Paris assessment – the 'Road from Paris' communication , published last month – the Commission said an increase in ambition would only apply to the 'period beyond 2030'.

This position drew cutting criticism at the March Environment Council from Germany, France, the UK and many other countries. The heart of the Paris Agreement is the commitment to keep global temperature increases 'well below' 2°C, and to pursue efforts to stay below 1.5°C. This requires much steeper emissions cuts if the EU is to deliver anything like its fair share of the global effort. "We all know the level of ambition for 2030 [40% cuts compared to 1990 levels] is not enough to keep us below 2°C. We can’t encourage others to play an ambitious role if we’re not prepared to do it ourselves" said the Portuguese environment minister.

I know it is counter-intuitive to say the Commission's climate action department (CLIMA) is blocking steeper emissions cuts. But if you were running CLIMA, knowing how much needs to be done to meet 'well below 2°C' – far less 1.5°C – wouldn't you be using the momentum of the Paris Agreement to call for a review? Yet the director general, Jos Delbeke, has consistently defended the current target of 40% cuts by 2030, so much so that some are calling him ‘Jos Delblocker . Artur Runge-Metzger, in charge of climate strategy, has said 'the level of ambition for 2030 is open' . But this was only when pushed to clarify earlier comments suggesting the opposite.

Besides, it's not as if the inadequacy of EU climate action is only a problem since Paris. CLIMA officials know EU climate policies are based on the low end of what is needed to keep temperature increases in the 2-2.4°C range. They know they're using outdated science from 2007. But they've consistently refused to do anything about it. When the 2030 targets were first being modelled, three years ago, the Commission considered a range of 35-45% emission cuts by 2030. And the only 45% scenario was put forward, not by the climate department, but by the energy department (the high efficiency, high renewables scenario – see table 2 page 41 ). CLIMA thought that looking beyond 40% wasn't politically realistic.

Two other examples. First, CLIMA analysts refuse to include assumptions about the costs of climate damages. They say the estimates are not reliable enough to be included. They would rather assume no climate damages at all than include a rough range (strangely enough, nobody says the same for oil price guesstimates). But the economics of climate action versus inaction are crucial to building political support. So CLIMA’s approach is undermining the action case.

Second, there is CLIMA's opposition to higher ambition for efficiency and renewables. I've heard this from many Commission officials, and from Connie Hedegaard when she was still in office. The argument is this: steeper emissions cuts from efficiency and renewables will cut greenhouse gas emissions faster than expected, and lower the Emissions Trading System (ETS) carbon price even further. Hedegaard's head of cabinet was caught on record saying this a few years back. It amounts to an ‘ambitious climate action is bad for the ETS’ message.

Back to the present and the Paris follow up. Note the words 'the Paris Agreement vindicated the EU's approach' in the Commission’s communication ( section 3.2 p9 ). A journalist I was speaking to says this is very symbolic. Going into the Paris negotiations, top CLIMA officials still thought the EU might end up with less than 40%. Now they're relieved and convinced it’s safe. They want to get on with sharing out the responsibility for meeting the 40% cuts among the 28 EU member states. In short, CLIMA officials are using the Paris Agreement to consolidate their position (which, remember, uses 2007 science). They're not using it to fight for the steeper emissions cuts which are so urgently needed.

I totally share this analysis. Top people in CLIMA seem dangerously cautious. It's as if they're still back in 2010, just after the disappointment of the Copenhagen climate conference. They're scarred. As a result, all people like Delbeke and Runge-Metzger can talk about is the importance of 'not rocking the boat' (a favourite CLIMA dictum), of not provoking Poland. It's a policy of appeasement.

It’s vital for them to see that the agreement in Paris for ‘well below’ 2°C and 1.5°C can transform the politics of climate action. We need CLIMA to start fighting for steeper cuts. We need to see a display of resolve – some ‘oomph’, as the Austrian minister put it at the March Environment Council. And I’m convinced that if CLIMA won't change, everybody with a stake in climate action (which is to say all of us) needs to do whatever possible to change them.

Other columns by Brook Riley