Last updated: January 7, 2014 10:15 pm

Big four EU economies seek tougher cuts in gas emissions

Europe’s four biggest economies are calling on the EU to set what they call an ambitious target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, seeking a binding cut of at least 40 per cent from 1990 levels.

The call from Germany, Britain, France and Italy will reinvigorate a debate on Europe’s climate and energy policy just as the European Commission prepares to propose new 2030 targets for emissions reductions and the use of renewable energy on January 22.

“An ambitious greenhouse gas target of at least 40 per cent domestic emission reductions will be central to unlocking the tens of billions in low carbon investments we urgently need,” ministers from the four countries wrote in a letter to Connie Hedegaard, the climate commissioner overseeing the forthcoming proposal, and fellow commissioners.

The 2030 targets are seen by proponents as an essential way to shore up a climate policy that the EU once touted as an example of its global leadership but has since been beset by troubles.

Setting binding long-term targets is one way to restore faith in the bloc’s carbon market, which was supposed to be the linchpin of its climate policy but has suffered from moribund prices. It could also determine the course of Europe’s energy policy as the continent maps out investments in renewables, nuclear power and shale gas at a time when it is seen as losing competitiveness in relation to the US.

Any push for tougher targets will have to overcome resistance from heavy industry and sympathetic member states, particularly Poland. They have argued that deeper cuts could further hurt their competitiveness at a time when the region has already been mired in crisis. Some in the commission are also sceptical, seeking a 2030 target of no more than 35 per cent.

The 2030 targets are a follow-up to a trio of 2020 targets set before the eurozone crisis took hold. Under those objectives, European countries had legally binding commitments to reduce their emissions by 20 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020 and to derive 20 per cent of their energy from renewable sources. There was also a non-binding aspiration to reduce energy consumption by 20 per cent from projections made in 2007.

People close to the discussions say there is still disagreement over the final goals that the commission will be able to propose this month.

Setting a target for renewables is proving particularly contentious. Britain, which is pursuing more nuclear power, contends that a renewables’ target is backfiring and that an emissions target alone should be enough to refocus economies on greener energy.

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By contrast, Germany, France and Italy are seeking a robust 2030 target for renewables. Energy companies such as Alstom and Vestas, which would be involved in building green infrastructure, have called for a renewables’ target of 30 per cent.

Discussions are further complicated by shale reserves, which both Britain and Poland hope to develop. The January 22 proposal may ultimately include some broad guidelines on how these resources can be best managed.

After the commission makes its proposal this month, national leaders will decide whether to endorse the targets in March. If they do, the commission will then draw up legislation to implement them.

Frederic Thoma, energy policy adviser at Greenpeace’s European unit, argued that the 40 per cent target could be skewed by an excess of carbon credits holding down prices in the carbon market, known as the Emission Trading System.

“A 40 per cent domestic carbon target is not truly a 40 per cent target if the EU does not do anything to tackle the large surplus of ETS allowances accumulating in the system. Ministers seem to overlook this problem,” he said.

“The EU 2030 climate and energy framework is not complete and therefore not credible if it is of insufficient ambition, and if it does not contain a dedicated binding target for renewable energy.”

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