With three months to go to the European elections, yesterday's climate change package from the European Commission is likely to be one of the most significant proposals to emerge from Brussels before the end of the current commission's term.
It is also one of the most controversial. The 40 minute-delay in the unveiling of the proposal to a packed room full of journalists in Brussels yesterday was reportedly due to last-minute disagreements between commissioners.
The new package replaces the current climate 2020 proposals in place since 2007 which set out three main targets for 2020 – a 20 per cent drop in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels, a 20 per cent in the EU’s energy efficiency, and the obligation to derive 20 per cent of the EU’s energy consumption from renewable sources. All three targets are binding, with different permutations worked out for each member state.
Yesterday’s proposal departs significantly from the current package. While a binding greenhouse emission target of 40 per cent by 2030 is proposed, the renewable target of 27 per cent is only binding at an EU level, and won’t be translated into national targets through EU legislation.
The European Commission argues this will give member states greater "flexibility" in implementing energy policy; NGOs, such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, accused the European Union of "selling out".
Like most EU proposals the passage of the climate energy package has been formulated against a background of intensive lobbying. While fossil-fuel energy companies have been lobbying hard to water down renewable targets, representatives from private renewable energy companies have also been campaigning, keen to ensure that renewable targets – which attract heavy publicly funded subsidies in most countries – are maintained.
But the biggest lobbying has come from member states. Britain is widely seen as the big winner from yesterday’s announcement. In light of its commitment to nuclear energy and interest in shale gas, it had reputedly invested huge personnel resources in Brussels to make sure that renewable targets should not be binding.
But for all sides involved, the real motive for the shape of yesterday's proposal is money. The economic downturn has made the share of the energy pie smaller, meaning that traditional energy companies have to fight harder to guarantee their share of income. Concern about the rising cost of energy prices in the EU, particularly in comparison to the United States, which has seen energy costs fall in part due to the shale gas revolution, also helped shape the proposal. With renewables pushing up the price of energy because of public subsidies, a move to make renewable targets binding was seen as anti-consumer and anti-competitive for Europe. In reality, the straitened economic climate has changed the terms of the debate in climate change in Europe. While the 2020 proposal was conceived in the heady days of the economic boom, yesterday's proposal is more reflective of the economic realities post-euro zone crisis. For climate change cynics, yesterday's proposal is proof of the argument that climate change is a luxury not grounded in economic reality.
European Commission president José Manuel Barroso put up a strong defence of the policy yesterday, pointing out that Europe had made enormous strides in terms of renewable energy since the 2020 package was agreed. He also – rightly – argued that Europe was still well ahead of other international players when it comes to environmental policies.
Connie Hedegaard, commissioner for climate action, was even more strident, criticising NGOs for their idealism and political naivety.
“The art of politics is to propose something that can actually get through,” she said, adding that the final shape of the proposal meant it was possible for 28 member states to back it. “If we did not do that, this proposal would be dead from today, politically speaking.”
Yesterday’s proposal was only the first stage in the legislative process, with EU leaders set to discuss the issue at the March summit.
It may also have an impact on domestic energy issues in Ireland, with the Government losing one of its key rationales for the promotion of renewable energy – the need to adhere to binding EU targets. Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte has insisted that Ireland's commitment to renewables would continue with or without binding EU legislation, while the Irish Wind Energy Association noted the 27 per cent EU target would still have implications for member states' commitments to renewables, although how this would work in practice is still unclear.
Ireland is likely to closely follow the twists and turns of this European proposal closely as it weaves its way through the EU legislative process.