Mary Robinson: Why Europe needs to set the pace on climate change

Opinion: The importance of acting now cannot be overstated: every euro spent on fossil fuels today condemns parts of the world to hurricanes, drought and infectious diseases

This week, the European Union’s heads of state and government will make a decision on the future of Europe’s climate and energy framework. Europe must not miss this opportunity to provide transformative leadership that enables the rest of the world to co-operate on climate change, the most global of challenges.

The meeting of the European Council – the gathering of the EU member states – in Brussels on Thursday and Friday will lead to a decision that will have far-reaching consequences. The summit is expected to see the adoption of a new framework for Europe’s climate and energy policy, including a set of targets for 2030 to cut our greenhouse gas emissions, boost renewable energy use and reduce overall energy use. These pledges matter, for Europe and the international community.

They are being made about a year before the conference in Paris at which the world’s nations will meet to agree on a new global deal on climate change. The chances of reaching an agreement will be set to a large extent by the commitments that countries and regions announce in the run-up to the meeting. The council’s decision this week will be the basis of the offer Europe brings to Paris. If the EU demonstrates it is serious about cutting its emissions, Europe will be in a leading position to use the time between the council decision and the Paris conference to persuade and encourage other countries to carry their fair share.


Strong European leadership can give confidence to developing countries who are already taking ambitious action to help their people avoid fossil-fuel dependence. It will give hope to vulnerable communities and it will put pressure on other major economies to scale up their ambitions too. If we all work together we stand a chance to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, provide assistance to those already feeling its impact, and boost the emergence of an inclusive global economy built from clean energy and sustainable land use.


Europe has demonstrated leadership in the past. The existing policy framework in the EU commits us to cut our emissions of greenhouses gases to 20 per cent below 1990 levels while increasing the share of renewable energy to 20 per cent and cutting overall energy consumption by 20 per cent, all by 2020. The goals were adopted in 2008 and Europe is largely on track to meet or exceed them.

But the 2020 targets are only one step towards the EU’s eventual goal of cutting its emissions by between 80 per cent and 95 per cent by 2050. That, in turn, is Europe’s contribution to the world’s goal of limiting global warming to 2° above pre-industrial levels in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

The importance of acting now cannot be overstated: every euro spent on fossil fuels today locks in a certain amount of global warming and reduces our chances of achieving the emissions reductions needed by 2050. It condemns parts of the world to hurricanes, drought and infectious diseases. On the other hand, every euro spent in renewable energy or, better still, energy efficiency, is an investment in a better future. The renewable energy revolution began in Europe and the United States, but wind and solar technology costs have fallen so far that it is now the cheapest and quickest route to electrification in many parts of Africa and India.

Europe risks losing its hard-won competitive advantages in these industries if the 2030 policy framework fails to create an investment climate that allows European businesses to continue on this path. Renewable energy (mainly solar photovoltaic and wind) investments in the EU already decreased by 58 per cent between 2011 and 2013, and China is now the largest investor in renewable energy. Without a strong policy framework for 2030 and beyond, Europe also risks losing jobs and growth at home. The European Council must, this week, provide a clear signal to the rest of the world that Europe is serious.

This means it must pledge greenhouse gas emission reductions of at least 40 per cent. These cuts must be delivered through real and absolute domestic cuts and hold out the prospect of further reductions, possibly through international offsets, following a global deal in Paris. A 40 per cent target on its own or one that is prone to being watered down will not be enough to convince Europe’s international partners.

Suite of strong policies

In addition, the EU must provide assurance to investors and Europe’s industry that energy efficiency and renewable energy are good bets. This means a suite of strong policies for renewable energy and energy efficiency – the 27 per cent and 30 per cent targets currently being discussed are well below what Europe could do, but they are a start. The same applies to the EU emissions trading system, which provides a model emulated in many parts of the world.

The EU is a project of solidarity and progress through co-operation. There is no greater challenge than climate change, and no continent better placed than Europe to provide the necessary international leadership. On Thursday, EU leaders must stand as one and reach for a decision adequate to the challenge. They must provide an inspiring example to Europe’s citizens and to the world, and set us on a good course for a meaningful global agreement on climate change.

Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, is the United Nations secretary-general’s special envoy on climate change and a member of the European Climate Foundation’s advisory board