Pushing for Paris: How EU, US and China cascade towards an international climate deal

by Paula Iwaniuk

After dragging their feet for the best part of a year, EU countries recently agreed on a 2030 climate and energy framework. This move forward has the potential to diminish the effects of global warming and climate change, but will other countries buy into it?

While some cheered for Europe’s new target formula – cutting greenhouse gases by at least 40% and increasing both renewable energy market share as well as energy efficiency by 27% 2030, or 40-27-27 – others sneered that the EU was not ambitious enough to tackle climate change.

Back in 2008, when the European Commission unveiled its 20-20-20 by 2020 package, this energy/climate triangle was created to demonstrate the most important pillars of the EU’s energy and climate change policy.

However, while the triangle attempts to balance the three pillars of security of supply, affordability/competitiveness and greenhouse gas reductions, the balance is always skewed by the political climate, whether at European or national level.

While in 2008 the political will was there for the EU to become greener and more climate-friendly, in 2014 the buzzwords of the day are “competitiveness” and “energy security.”

This change is underpinned by tight domestic budgets, increased energy prices and austerity measures. All of these factors have seemingly resulted in a less ambitious climate action policy following the Eurozone crisis. In some countries, including in the country I know best, Poland, experts have drawn this connection this more or less explicitly.

Known back in 2008 as the champion in fighting climate change, the EU played the role of the little engine that could in putting climate action on the agenda, always pushing members from the international community to do their share to fight the effects of climate change.

The EU did lead discussions on targets and gave others a framework for their own action, and it must be credited with being the first to announce its post-2030 climate goals. Nevertheless, European pressure hadn’t worked its magic on the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, the U.S. and China.

Until last week, that is. In Beijing, the U.S. and China signed a historic climate deal, sending an important political signal to others. In short, the U.S. will emit 26-28% less carbon in 2025 than it did in 2005, which is double the pace of reduction it initially targeted for 2020. China on the other hand pledged to ensure its emissions peak by 2030 or sooner, and aims to get 20% of its energy from clean energy sources.

The critics will continue to shout that this isn’t ambitious enough, that the planet is doomed. But IEA Chief Economist Fatil Birol rightfully pointed out that without action by the two largest polluters, the actions of other countries are negligent.

Now the equation is complete, according to Birol, as the U.S., China, and EU can inject political momentum on the way to the Paris Climate Change talks in December 2015, with a quick pit stop in Lima in a few weeks.

Announcements are grand, but will they result in actual change?

There are, to be fair, a few bumps in the road. For Europe, domestic arguments about whether it can afford the 2030 framework remain at the forefront. And after all, energy security will continue to trump environmental concerns in the short-term.

For China, a country that is heavily reliant on coal, the change won’t be easy or cheap. And for the U.S. the deal comes at a bad time politically, as the Republicans take control of Congress vowing to push these targets off the agenda. At least President Obama has something President Junker doesn’t have yet: the ability to sign an executive order.

A solution does not exist in polarised positions, but rather in setting ambitious goals to make progress in this area. Otherwise our environment falls victim to short-term political whims.

A version of this piece was originally published at gplus europe

Paula Iwaniuk is the Director of Communications and Marketing with YPFP Brussels.