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Europe’s New Climate Targets: Myth & Reality

The Global Warming Policy Foundation

On 22 January, the outgoing European Commission (EC) proposed new EU-wide CO2 emissions and renewables targets for 2030, which will be discussed by the European Council in the next 12 months.

This announcement was reported in the media as if the EU has already adopted these aggressive, new targets.

This is, however, not the case.

If agreed by the European Council, the CO2 emissions target would only be offered as a conditional pledge during the 2015 international negotiations on climate change in Paris.

In its press release, the Commission states:

“The Commission invites the Council and the European Parliament to agree by the end of 2014 that the EU should pledge the 40% reduction in early 2015 as part of the international negotiations on a new global climate agreement due to be concluded in Paris at the end of 2015.” (1)

In light of deep splits among EU member states, there are considerable uncertainties about what will happen to these proposals:

(i) There is no certainty that the proposed targets will remain as stringent as currently proposed. 

(ii) There is no guarantee of a final EU agreement before the UN climate summit in Paris in 2015. 

(iii) In the event that no global CO2 emissions treaty is agreed in 2015, the EU’s conditional pledge may not be enacted. 

This uncertainty has significant implications for the UK’s climate policy, with a real prospect of UK emissions targets being scaled back significantly in line with EU targets.

Dr Benny Peiser explains the myths and realities of the EU Commission’s proposed 2030 climate targets.

Proposed 2030 Targets

Emissions Target

The European Commission is proposing that the EU should pledge a 40% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030 compared to the 1990 levels, and that this should be used as part of the EU’s negotiations at the UN climate summit in Paris in 2015. This would represent a doubling of the 2020 EU CO2 emissions reduction target of 20%. (2)

To achieve the EU’s target for 2020, Member States are required to limit their greenhouse gas emissions by meeting “binding annual limits”. (3) Member States have different annual emission allocations, with some EU member states required to cut their emissions whilst others are permitted to increase them at restricted rates. (4) The EU Commission can impose various penalties on Member States where national targets are not met. (5)

The European Council – made up of the heads of state or government of all EU member states – is expected to discuss the 2030 EU-wide emissions proposal in the next 12 months. The European Council would only be able to agree a legally binding 40% emissions reduction target for 2030 if all Member States accepted new, nationally binding CO2 targets. Such an agreement would have to be done under an ‘Effort Sharing Decision’, (6) where each Member State has to take on nationally binding CO2 emission targets. Furthermore, the Commission is only proposing that the EU should pledge a conditional 40% target as part of the global negotiations in Paris, meaning that the target may be dropped if no global agreement is made in 2015.


Renewables Target

The European Commission has proposed an EU-wide binding target that would require at least 27% of the EU’s energy generation to come from renewables by 2030 (7), increasing from the 2020 target of 20%. (8)

Under the Renewable Energy Directive Member States took on legally binding national targets for renewable generation by 2020. The individual Member States’ starting points and potential increases in renewable energy production were accounted for when setting the national targets. (9) The UK, for example, was set a legally binding target of 15% renewable energy generation by 2020. Member States who do not satisfy their commitments will be liable to fines and other punishments from the EU Commission.

No such domestic binding renewable energy targets will be set from 2020 onwards, making it the first time in nearly two decades that the UK will not need to adopt national targets on renewable energy. (10) This makes it theoretically possible for the UK to rely on shale gas and nuclear construction, rather than expanding renewable energy. (11) A senior EU official has also admitted that the “binding” 27% EU-wide renewables target by 2030 is unenforceable in its current form. This is due to there being no provision to force any country to pledge a certain level of renewable energy and countries would not be punished for failing to meet its pledge. (12)

What next for the Proposed Targets?

There has been considerable disagreement amongst member states about the level of targets, which could prove to be a stumbling block when the European Council considers these proposals. It has been reported, for example, that at least 5 commissioners along with many EU member states had been pushing for a lower emissions target of 35%. (13)

Moreover, Poland and other member states are opposed to unilateral EU energy and climate targets until there is a global legally binding agreement on climate targets. However, over the course of the last few years, the likelihood of a global climate agreement has been further reduced by a number of western countries rolling back on their decarbonisation commitments, including Australia (14), (15),  Japan (16) and Canada. (17)

Implications on UK Climate Policy: UK’s Fourth Carbon Budget & Climate Change Act


In 2011, in line with legal commitments under the UK’s Climate Change Act 2008, the Government set its fourth carbon budget to cover the period 2023 to 2027, which agreed to a conditional C02 emissions target of a 50% reduction compared to 1990 levels by 2025 (18). This target is far more ambitious than the EU-wide target of 40% by 2030 proposed by the EU Commission.

According to the Climate Change Act, the Government may amend the UK’s emissions target if there have been significant developments in European law or policy that make it appropriate to do so. (19)

The Government has been clear that the UK may revise the 50% target in the fourth carbon budget at some stage in light of developments and commitments in the European Union. (20) The uncertainty about EU emissions targets may therefore lead to the UK’s fourth carbon budget being revised to a more modest set of commitments in line with EU committments.