Amid the media’s elation over the United Nations climate deal reached in Paris on Dec. 12, one significant outcome has been overlooked. The European Union failed to achieve its main objective, namely that the agreement adopt carbon-dioxide mitigation commitments that are “legally binding on all parties.”
While this may appear to be a major setback, it liberates Europe from the restrictions of the Kyoto Protocol—which runs out in 2020—and opens the way for more flexible and less damaging policies.
During the Paris negotiations, European Climate Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete warned that the EU “cannot make the mistake we made in Kyoto” where “all the big emitters were outside the legally binding agreement.” For Europe, the Kyoto Protocol has forced EU states to adopt unilateral, and disastrously costly, decarbonization policies. With their manufacturers rapidly losing ground to international competition, governments are increasingly concerned about the threat high energy prices pose to Europe’s industrial base.
The economic damage of unilateral climate policy is now widely acknowledged. In September 2014, then-EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger warned that “If there is no binding commitment from countries such as India, Russia, Brazil, the U.S., China, Japan and South Korea, whose governments are responsible for some 70% of global emissions,” it would be a mistake for EU states to bind only themselves. “If we are too ambitious and others do not follow us, we will have an export of production and more emissions outside the EU.”
EU leaders followed Mr. Oettinger’s prudent counsel. While the 28-nation bloc offered to cut carbon emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, its pledge, announced in October 2014, was and remains conditional on all major emitters adopting legally binding targets.
In the run-up to the Paris meeting, the EU warned the Obama administration that, in order to avoid another Kyoto-fiasco, any new accord would have to be based on legally binding pledges by all major economies to cut carbon emissions. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, clearly concerned about opposition to an international climate “treaty” in the U.S. Senate, ruled out Europe’s demand. In contrast to the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris accord is thus based on voluntary pledges of intentions determined and monitored by individual governments in line with their national interests.
Without legally binding decarbonization caps, there will be strong opposition within the EU to making its own conditional pledges legally binding. Poland and other poor states in Eastern and Central Europe are widely expected to rebel against accepting unilateral policies that have undermined Europe’s competitiveness. The governments of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia and Lithuania are opposed to adopting any new carbon targets under these circumstances. Even a number of West European states will be extremely reluctant to continue Kyoto-type unilateralism.
The new conservative government in Warsaw has already indicated that it will reject the EU’s 2030 pledge in the absence of a globally binding climate deal. Poland, which depends on coal for nearly 90% of its power generation, has taken a hard line on EU climate policy after the Law and Justice party took power in October. On Nov. 30, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said in her opening statement at the Paris conference that Poland would not endorse any policies that are not fair and globally binding.
EU leaders met in Brussels soon after the Paris agreement, and they called on environment ministers and the European Commission to assess its policy implications. At the next EU summit, in March 2016, conflicting interpretations and assessments will pit Western European against Eastern European member states. It is highly likely that the expected deadlock will delay any decision on the EU’s post-Kyoto policy.
In any case, the EU would only be able to make its 40% emissions reduction pledge for 2030 legally binding if all member states accepted new, nationally binding carbon-dioxide targets under a newly negotiated “burden sharing mechanism.” After Paris, the chances of the EU repeating its Kyoto mistake and adopting new unilateral carbon-dioxide restrictions are close to zero.
Still, the EU is not going to renege on its Paris pledge. A more likely approach from Brussels will be a fudge: EU leaders may agree to make their 40% pledge binding, but not at national levels.
Such an exit strategy would emulate the EU’s renewable-energy policy for 2030, which—while being called a EU-wide and binding target—does not oblige members states to adopt any legally binding renewable energy targets domestically. And since the 27% EU-wide renewables target by 2030 is unenforceable, no country will be punished for adopting or failing to meet any target.
The toothless nature of the Paris agreement finally allows EU member states to abandon unilateral decarbonization policies that have damaged Europe’s economies and its international competitiveness. Under such circumstances, the unconditional climate policies of President Obama would be left out in the cold. The U.S. administration has pledged to cut carbon emissions by 26%-28% by 2025, no matter what China, India and the rest of the world do in coming decades.
In contrast to Europe’s conditional pledge, Mr. Obama’s go-it-alone policy is unconditional. For the first time, it would appear that Europe’s climate policy is moving in a more rational and realistic direction than that of North America.
Mr. Peiser is the director of the London-based Global Warming Policy Forum.