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Will Europe Go to 30 Percent Carbon Cuts by 2020?

SOURCE: AP/Alastair Grant

The European Union has proposed cutting its carbon emissions 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 if other developed countries reduce their carbon emissions 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. But Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said in Copenhagen that the European Union should proceed with its 30 percent reductions targets regardless of what other developed countries are prepared to do right now.

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In January 2008 the European Union announced one of the most ambitious and promising policies on reducing carbon pollution by 2020 for the hoped-for post-Kyoto climate agreement. If other developed countries would agree to meet the European Union in cutting their emissions 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 with a comparable commitment, then the European Union would raise their promised reductions from 20 to 30 percent below 1990 levels by the same year.

In turn, several member countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany would help ensure that the European Union could meet this mark by committing to such “midterm” emissions cuts by moving their commitment to reductions over 40 percent by 2020. Such a target would then put the European Union on a secure path to reducing their emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, a number which the United States and other developed countries agreed to last July at the G8 meeting in Italy as the appropriate level of emissions reductions for their economies further down the road.

This promise to increase its 2020 ambition put the European Union squarely within the estimates of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which stipulated that developed countries needed to reduce their emissions by 25 percent to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 to put the world on a path that would most likely ensure an increase of no more than 2 degrees Celsius in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels. An upcoming report by the Center for American Progress using data provided by Project Catalyst estimates that the European Union’s ambitious increase would reduce its yearly emissions in 2020 from 4,451 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent to 3,995 megatons—a considerable amount.

One of the biggest questions going into Copenhagen has been whether the United States in particular would agree to meet the European Union on this ambitious midterm reduction target and trigger the EU “ramp up” to 30 percent reductions. At the Beijing Summit last month in China, President Barack Obama accepted a proposal by the Danish government that the focus at Copenhagen should be on completing the first half of a two-step process. The meeting this week should focus on forging an interim agreement outlying general aspirations for a full, final, and ratifiable treaty, which will be completed sometime in 2010.

As part of that promise Obama announced that for this week’s stage in the negotiations in Copenhagen, the United States would commit to midterm reductions “in the range of” 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. This would amount to reductions of 0 percent to 3 percent below 1990 levels, the same amount identified in the economy-wide provisions—an important caveat I will return to below—of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, or ACES, passed out of the House of Representatives last summer.

At face value this midterm commitment by the United States will be insufficient to trigger the acceleration of European reductions from 20 percent to 30 percent by 2020. Nonetheless there are differences emerging in the EU delegation as to whether this conventional wisdom is correct.

Today Britain’s Prime Minster Gordon Brown announced that the European Union should proceed with its 30 percent reductions regardless of what other developed countries are prepared to do right now. Said Brown, "It’s not enough to say, ‘I may do this, I might do that, possibly I’ll do this.’ I want to create a situation in which the European Union is persuaded to go to 30 percent," adding, "We’ve got to make countries recognize that they have to be as ambitious as they say they want to be."

On the other hand, Swedish Minister for Environment Andreas Carlgren, who currently holds the rotating EU presidency, stated in the EU press conference on the first day of the Copenhagen meeting that he was not prepared to say what the EU position would be on a possible unilateral ramp up of its 2020 target. He did suggest that there would be some disagreement about this possibility within the delegation. (You can watch the whole press conference here.)

A potential middle path could allow the European Union to move to a 30 percent midterm reduction while also encouraging a greater degree of U.S. reductions. If we look beyond the stated economy-wide caps in ACES at the potential reductions in greenhouse gases from its complementary sectoral reductions in, for example, the bill’s commitment to using 5 percent of the revenue generated from its cap-and-trade system to help developing countries avoid further deforestation, then the potential reductions in ACES are much larger than the stated 17 percent economy-wide cap below 2005 levels.

According to a recent study by the World Resources Institute, if one considers the full range of complementary provisions in ACES, in addition to the cap-and-trade portions, then emissions reductions of up to 23 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 are realizable—an outcome that would actually meet the European Union’s requirements to trigger their increase to 30 percent. The aforementioned research from CAP and Project Catalyst will confirm at least a 13 percent reduction below 1990 levels possible through ACES once the forestry provisions are counted in the total reductions. Considering such reductions would be consistent with one claim made by Minister Carlgren yesterday, namely, that we must all look to the international forestry sector as a substantial source for deep and immediate reductions in emissions.

CAP terms the calculation of a country’s full contribution to emission reductions beyond economy-wide measures a “carbon cap equivalent.” A proposal last summer by the Australian delegation to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action called for a new climate treaty that would effectively allow for counting carbon cap equivalents and not just economy-wide measures for both developed and developing countries.

Not all parties in Copenhagen presently agree on the viability or desirability of the Australian proposal as the basis for a new international climate agreement. Details of this sort will likely wait until 2010 when a complete and ratifiable climate treaty will eventually be finalized as advanced by the Danish government. Nonetheless, if the European Union decided to accept something like our “cap equivalents” as a possible way of evaluating the potential U.S. contribution of emissions reductions by 2020 then this could justify their acceleration to 30 percent reductions by the same year. The coming days will see how the European Union decides how to evaluate the U.S. contribution to emissions reductions in our current and pending legislation.

Andrew Light is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress working on international climate policy.

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