Tuesday 19. October 2021

European Climate Policy between ambition and disappointment

Edmond Grace, JESC’s secretary for ecology and justice, gives an overview on the achievements and challenges of European climate policy.

Not all news relating to climate change is bad. The EU is on track to meet its emissions reduction target of 20% by next year. In fact, there was a 22% reduction of emissions between 1990 and 2017 while the economy grew by 28% over the same period. The main driver behind the emission reductions is innovation, including progress on renewable energy and energy efficiency. All of the above appears on the offical website of the European Union (www.europa.eu) which also tells us that 2020 target excludes emissions from the land sector but includes emissions from international aviation. Nothing is entirely straightforward in this area of climate action and there are those who say that these targets are not ambitious enough.


Differences between the Kyoto Protocol and the 2020 targets

These developments are linked by the European Commission to the targets set by the Kyoto Protocol, which is part of the COP process. COP stands for “Conference of the Parties” to the United Nations Climate Change Convention which was first adopted in 1992. Kyoto was adopted in 1997 and came into force in 2005. It requires annual reporting on emissions of seven “greenhouse gases” along with measures taken to reduce them. Its first commitment period ran from 2008 to 2012.  We are currently coming to the end of the second commitment period which began in 2012.


The Europa website tells us that “the Kyoto targets are different from the EU’s own 2020 targets”. We are not told why this difference exists. Why, for instance, do Kyoto targets cover land use but not international aviation, while EU targets cover international aviation and not land use? These differences are not fortuitous. They play a significant part in the ongoing role of powerful vested interests in the development of climate action policy.


The 2030 EU climate and energy framework has been in place since 2014 and, as with the 2020 targets, is based on the Kyoto process. The commitment is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40%, increase renewable energy input to 32% and increase energy efficiency by at least 23.5%. The plan allows for an upward revision of these targets in 2023, though last year, in the lead up to Katowice, Miguel Arias Cañete, Commissioner for Energy and Climate Action, was confident that emission reduction would reach 45% by 2030. He suggested this as a new target.


Powerful vested interests

Fourteen EU member states including France and Germany had requested such a target and some of them wanted it to be as high as 55%. At the last moment however, Angela Merkel, demurred after the Federation of German Industries, announced its opposition to “ever more ambitious goals”. Poland and other eastern European states were already of this view which, with Merkel’s, support, prevailed.


In any discussion on climate change policy it is easy to get lost in one of two ways – or both! Firstly the sheer complexity of some provisions is such that few outside select group of technical experts can understand the detail. Secondly, the array of powerful vested interests at work in this area are in the best position to employ those with greatest expertise and to use them to make the issues even more complex.


With climate policy, there is no simple solution – no silver bullet – and if anything is to be learnt from the events from the past year, well intended provisions can lead to discouraging results. The gilets jaunes phenomenon reflects a legitimate sense of grievance on the part of those left behind by the neo-liberal dominance of recent decades, but it also feeds into a political narrative in which the governed are seen as the victims of those who govern.


Care for our common home

The challenge in the forthcoming elections is to find political representatives who are able to imagine a future in which humanity has triumphed over the dangers which currently threaten us and where we share a common home with pure air, fresh clean water and fertile wholesome earth. It’s a tall order for this generation of politicians, but they will have to learn to strike the note of pathos. The only way to challenge the self-centred world of populism is by generating hope.


Climate policy poses a unique challenge not just with regard to what must be done but in relation to how the issue itself can affect us. To put it mildly, it can be discouraging. If we fail to stand well back and take a simple look at this planet which we all share, then the love, which we need to care for it, will wither. The love in one person, against the background of this reality, may seem a puny thing but this puny individuality is the only form which human love takes on this planet. It’s like life itself which cannot exist apart from the puny single cells which make up every organism on earth. Unless we experience to some degree this combination of fragility and power, all talk about politicians, and policies and elections, is futile. In other words, we need hope. It is vital if we are to face the dark side honestly and to challenge what we find.


Edmond Grace SJ,



The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.

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Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.