By Kieran Cooke, Climate News NetworkThis piece first appeared at Climate News Network.

LONDON — On the face of it, this week’s EU climate and energy package, with its targets for cutbacks in emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) and the uptake of renewable energy up to the year 2030, looks impressive.

The central element in the package is a binding EU-wide 40% reduction in GHG emissions over 1990 levels by 2030. Significantly, this has to be achieved “through domestic measures alone” – meaning member states can’t meet emissions reductions obligations by making offsetting GHG cutbacks in other countries.

There’s also a binding target of achieving at least a 27% share of the European energy mix from renewables by the same year and plans for a major overhaul of the EU’s ill-performing Emissions Trading System (ETS), with the aim of lifting the market price for carbon and encouraging emission reductions across the industrial sector.

“If all other regions were equally ambitious about tackling climate change, the world would be in significantly better shape”, says Connie Hedegaard, the EU Climate Commissioner.

Yet while the figures might impress, it’s clear the fracking revolution in the US has the EU’s energy strategists on the run. According to the European Commission, US gas prices fell by 66% between 2005 and 2012 while in Europe they rose by 35% over the same period.

‘No contradiction’

Reflecting intense lobbying by Europe’s industrialists and several governments, the EU package repeatedly emphasises the need to retain economic competitiveness.

“Climate action is central for the future of our planet, while a truly European energy policy is key to our competitiveness” says Jose Manuel Barroso, the EC President.

Barroso insists that tackling the two issues simultaneously is not contradictory, but the EU’s critics say the latest package is designed more to satisfy short-term economic aims than to seriously tackle climate change.

The long-term goal of EU climate and energy policy is to reduce GHG emissions by up to 95% by 2050, limiting the rise in global average temperature to 2°C over pre-industrial levels and so hopefully averting runaway climate change.

Climate scientists and green groups within the EU say the 2030 targets are not nearly ambitious enough and make the 2050 goal very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

“We have to take into account that the 40% target is the death knell of 2°C and probably much more aligned with 4°C once all the trading/CDM/offsetting scams are factored in”, says Kevin Anderson, professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester in the UK and deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

“As a climate community, we continually forget that not acting now has repercussions that in themselves change what the future will be – we ask questions as if the science is in any real doubt. It is not.”

The EU’s target for renewables has also come under fire, with critics saying the Commission has once again given in to powerful EU fossil fuel, nuclear and shale gas lobby groups.

Goal optional

Earlier proposals by a number of countries, including Germany, called for a 2030 renewables target of at least 30%.

At the insistence of countries such as Britain, which has both announced plans for a large-scale expansion of nuclear energy and is giving incentives to encourage the fracking industry, and Poland, which is heavily reliant on coal for its power and is also intent on exploiting shale gas, the target was lowered.

Furthermore the 27% goal for renewables is binding only on an EU-wide basis and not on individual member states: the result is likely to be that some countries will choose to reduce or opt out of meeting the target figure, leaving others to make up the shortfall by dramatically upping renewables use. In such circumstances, arguments could quickly develop.

By contrast, the present EU renewables target – a 20% share in the energy mix by 2020 – is binding on individual states.

Door open for shale

Ultimately, it is the need for Europe to maintain its economic competitiveness that is dominating EU strategy. That has meant scaling back on emissions cutbacks and renewable ambitions – and opening the door to the shale gas industry.

EC President Barroso says shale gas is changing the energy landscape in a dramatic way. Many in Europe are fiercely opposed to shale gas, yet the EU has stood back from imposing any EU-wide regulations on the industry, only issuing guidelines in its new package covering health and safety issues.

“It’s a good demonstration of the role the EU should play, setting the cross-border rules for environmental health and safety but not meddling in the energy mix that is chosen by member states”, says Barroso.

The package of EU proposals will now move on to be discussed by Europe’s leaders in March.

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