international analysis and commentary

Translating Europe’s COP-21 commitment into reality


The COP-21 climate conference that was held in Paris in December represented a historical step in the global fight against climate change. For the first time ever developed and developing countries agreed to establish a multilateral agreement (known as the Paris Agreement) aimed at limiting global warming to well below 2°C.

The European Union, with its strong climate diplomacy effort, played an important role in making this deal possible and is now committed to maintaining the international momentum in order to ensure the full and timely implementation of the Agreement. However, in order to translate this intention into reality, the EU has to first deliver on its own Paris commitment: that is to achieve at least a 40% domestic reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels).

In the run-up to the December conference, the European Council adopted the ‘2030 Framework for Climate and Energy’, which sets out how to achieve the new targets. However, actually getting there will be a challenge. It is not the first time that global commitments have been made. In 2009 the EU announced three climate targets for the year 2020. It promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% compared to 1990, to use 20% renewable energy and to increase energy efficiency by 20%. These targets were made into nationally binding legislation in 2009 and in 2012 and have had a substantial impact on the EU energy system.

Renewable energy as a share of the EU’s gross energy consumption reached 15.3% in 2014, and the majority of Member States are expected to meet their 2020 renewable energy targets. This success is due to precisely the fact that they were legally binding at the national level, which has been a key driver for their implementation. But this is not the case for the newest climate commitments.

After the adoption of the 2030 Framework by the European Council, the European Commission put forward legislative proposals to implement it in February 2015.  The proposals, set out in the ‘Energy Union Package’, aim to provide a coherent approach to climate change, energy security and competitiveness, to achieve the goals agreed upon.  The new targets are a 40% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030 compared to 1990, an energy mix with 27% renewables by 2030, and a 27% increase in energy efficiency by the same year.

However, unlike in the previous 2020 Package, the new EU targets will not be made into national binding targets through EU legislation. Supposedly this is because countries wanted “greater flexibility for Member States”, in line with EU treaties on the issue of national control over the energy mix. In reality, it is because Member States have diverging views on how EU energy markets should be organized, and seek maximum freedom in conducting their national energy policies. For instance, the UK and the Czech Republic suggest that the new framework “should only be sufficient to enable an assessment of collective progress, and should be significantly less prescriptive than is currently the case under the 2020 climate and energy package”.

This raises questions as to how the new 2030 Framework will be implemented. The lack of a binding  EU-wide approach allows Member States to continue with policies that fragment the internal energy market, while the lack of binding national targets carries the risk that national efforts will not add up to the EU aggregate commitments.

Only a solid governance structure can guarantee that states will hit the 2030 targets without facing binding obligations. In particular, investors’ confidence might be undermined without a strong and reliable governance system. To avoid this, the European Commission has proposed a governance scheme based on national plans for competitive, secure and sustainable energy. It involves the drafting of detailed guidelines by the European Commission and Member States, and an assessment of Member States’ plans and commitments. If insufficient, “a deeper iterative process would take place between the European Commission and the Member State to reinforce the plan’s content”.

In October 2014 the European Council had taken a much vaguer stance on the issue, calling for the establishment of a “reliable and transparent governance system without any unnecessary administrative burden”, to be built on “existing building blocks” such as national climate, renewable energy and energy efficiency plans.

In November 2015 the Transport, Telecommunication and Energy (TTE) Council approved a governance mechanism based on National Energy and Climate Plans. This requires Progress Reports to be produced on the plans’ implementation, “followed by an iterative dialogue with the Commission on implementation and possible decision to adjust its National Plan by the Member State.”

According to the Council’s conclusions, “the governance system will provide a timely assessment and forecast as regards the fulfilment of EU energy policy objectives and agreed climate and energy targets. As a result, timely action could be undertaken, whilst respecting the nature of the particular objective or target in question; such action could consist of improving the implementation of existing policies and measures, adjusting them or undertaking additional policies and measures.”

In the context of this highly bureaucratic formulation, it remains unclear how the proposed governance system would work and how the European Commission could intervene if a Member State rejected its national energy and climate plan.

Resolving this issue is necessary to provide real substance to the still-theoretical 2030 Framework, and therefore to allow the EU to translate its Paris commitment into reality.