Energy & Environment

Countries doing their own thing - step forward for the UN, backwards for the EU

David Buchan / Dec 2015

The French president François Hollande and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel at COP21. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A major part of the Paris climate conference’s apparent success was the decision to let countries do their own thing. In the wake of failed United Nations attempts to impose binding climate targets on countries – think of Kyoto – it was decided to encourage all governments to come up with their own voluntary climate programmes, on which future progress could be built. More than 150 countries presented their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to mitigating climate change. The name is made deliberately convoluted to underscore the voluntary, autonomous nature of these national climate programmes. And the tactic has worked in Paris to get the maximum number of countries on board the UN’s climate battle-bus, and then hopefully to move it forward in the years to come.

However, this free-wheeling attitude by countries to climate policy is, unhelpfully, catching on in the completely different context of the European Union. In Paris the EU has made, as it did in Kyoto, a collective commitment to cut greenhouses gases – a reduction by 2030 of 40 per cent compared to 1990. But in contrast to the EU’s current commitment of a collective 20 per cent reduction by 2020 which is underpinned by legally binding national targets to deploy renewable energy, the EU’s 2030 collective target is based on something akin to INDCs for individual EU member states. This is despite the fact that, at the same time, the EU-28 are supposed to be forming themselves into an Energy Union – in other words, a tighter, not a looser, convoy in terms of pursuing energy and climate policy.

In a new book from the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, we have identified weak governance or coordination between member states as one of the main design flaws in Europe’s Energy Union project. This inadequate governance results from the insistence of a number of EU member states, chiefly the UK and central and east European states, on throwing off the constraints of legally-binding national renewable targets (which the current ones expire in 2020), and on freeing themselves to achieve emission reductions through what will in effect be ‘nationally determined’ low-carbon programmes including the pursuit of nuclear power. So the building blocks of the Energy Union are to be the EU-28’s national energy and climate plans. In one sense, this is progress; at present only a few EU states have any long-term energy plans to shape their energy sector. However, if its building blocks are uneven, the Energy Union could turn out very misshapen.

In an attempt to standardise the building blocks, like pieces of Lego, the European Commission has gone into bureaucratic overdrive. In its State of the Energy Union report last month, the EU executive set out a complex matrix of “trajectories” and “indicators” for member states to follow in designing their national post-2020 energy and climate plans. The starting point of the trajectories is a national fact sheet for each of the 28 countries setting out their current energy situation, and a reference scenario extrapolating current trends into the future. Then each national plan will have to show its trajectory of progress towards the five broad “dimensions” of the Energy Union – improvements in energy security, market integration, energy efficiency, decarbonisation, research and development - and to produce a further scenario showing the impact of its national plan on its energy situation. Furthermore, national plans are to measure progress according to a list of 23 indicators considered relevant to the five dimensions – for instance, the share of imports in the context of energy security, percentage of renewables in relation to decarbonisation, energy use per square metre in residential housing in energy efficiency, and the rate of clean energy patent applications in relation to R and D.

The Commission has said that next year it will produce further guidance, and a template, for national plans which are to be ready by 2018, operational by 2020, and thereafter updated every two years. Yet, at the same time and with no apparent sense of irony, the Commission also says it will make a legislative proposal next year to “streamline” member states’ current reporting requirements to Brussels on energy and climate issues.

It remains to be seen whether the Commission can fashion national planning in a uniform manner to its liking. And even if it succeeds, there is a question mark over whether it has the right policy instruments to supervise and coordinate; the Emissions Trading System may never prove effective in incentivising the right investment because it can never guarantee investors a high carbon price to reward low-carbon projects.

The pity is that the EU has had an effective system to supervise and coordinate its member states’ energy and climate policies, but has decided to jettison it after 2020, just as the wider international community is groping towards adequate governance of what was agreed in Paris.


David Buchan

David Buchan

December 2015

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