In recent years, governments have increasingly opted to legislate to ensure they do the things they say they are going to do. In the UK, for example, the commitment to allocate 0.7 per cent of GDP to the international aid budget is legally binding, and in 2019 the UK became the first major economy to pass laws to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The peculiar aspect of these laws is that Parliament is still supreme, and so a future government can repeal any laws it finds inconvenient.
In reality, these legal targets have two effects. First, they help governments resist pressure from their backbenchers, for example when it comes to slashing international aid. Second, to a small extent they bind the hands of future governments by forcing them to have to publicly resile from these commitments. At least, however, future governments theoretically have the option to abandon their targets.
Not so in the EU, where the European Commission is apparently planning to increase their CO2 reduction target, despite opposition from several states. Currently, the EU target for emissions is a 40 per cent cut against 1990 levels by 2030. Next week the Commission will propose increasing that to either 50 or 55 per cent, with most observers predicting the higher target will be chosen.
The groundwork for this decision was laid back in March when the Commission published an ‘impact assessment’ study, with one observer suggesting it was ‘politically pre-defined’.
Many countries are unhappy about this, especially in Eastern Europe which still heavily relies on coal power. Poland, Czechia, Bulgaria and Romania are all still dependent on coal generation. Some estimates put the cost of this increase for Poland alone at €30bn (£27 billion).
The European People’s Party has announced its support for the measure, with members of the German CDU having a decisive role. This is remarkable given that Germany will have shut down all of its nuclear generation by 2022 and is clearing ancient woodlands to mine lignite, one of the dirtiest and least efficient forms of coal. Germany has committed to closing its coal plants by 2038, a significant challenge as one third of Germany’s electricity production is from coal, with more than half of that from lignite. It was anticipated that Russian gas would make up much of the shortfall, but the poisoning of Alexei Navalny has threatened the completion of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline. These factors in combination put considerable pressure on the security of the German electricity supply.
The real question is why the Commission are pushing forward with this move despite the crippling recession that will hit the continent post-Covid. The EU’s total contribution to global emissions was already below 10 per cent in 2017 while China accounts for almost a third. In terms of the impact on climate change, the new target will have negligible effect, even if the member states achieve it. And legislating that something must happen is a long way from creating the technological revolution that it requires.
Over the last 30 years, emissions from the developed nations, including the EU, have decreased significantly but often because they’ve been off-shored to other parts of the world. For example, China now accounts for half of global steel and aluminium production, so it’s hardly surprising that its emissions are high. Further reductions in EU emissions are likely to be achieved by loading significant costs onto European consumers by raising energy prices, off-shoring remaining energy-intensive industries, and phasing out of petrol cars (although electric cars are not without their environmental impact too).
It is unlikely that this policy platform would win many votes in an election, although that isn’t something the Commission has to worry about. Whether electorates choose to take their frustrations out on national governments instead remains to be seen.