POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 23, 2014
LONDON » For years, Europe has tried to set the global standard for climate-change regulation, creating tough rules on emissions, mandating more use of renewable energy sources and arguably sacrificing some economic growth in the name of saving the planet.
But now even Europe seems to be hitting its environmentalist limits.
High energy costs, declining industrial competitiveness and a recognition that the economy is unlikely to rebound strongly anytime soon are leading policymakers to begin easing up in their drive for more aggressive climate regulation.
On Wednesday, the European Union proposed an end to binding national targets for renewable energy production after 2020. Instead, it substituted an overall European goal likely to be much harder to enforce.
It also decided against proposing laws on environmental damage and safety during the extraction of shale gas by a controversial drilling process known as fracking. It opted instead for a series of minimum principles it said it would monitor.
Europe pressed ahead on other fronts, aiming for a cut of 40 percent in Europe's carbon emissions by 2030, double the current target of 20 percent by 2020. Officials said the new proposals were not evidence of diminished commitment to environmental discipline but reflected the complicated reality of bringing the 28 countries of the EU together behind a policy.
"It will require a lot from Europe," said Connie Hedegaard, European commissioner for climate action. "If all other big economies followed our example, the world would be a better place."
But the proposals were seen as a substantial backtrack by environmental groups, and evidence that economic factors were starting to influence the climate debate in ways they previously had not in Europe.
Friends of the Earth, an environmental group, described the proposals as "totally inadequate" and "off the radar of what climate science tells us to do in Europe to avoid climate catastrophe."
Wednesday's proposals came from the European Commission, the Brussels-based executive arm of the 28-nation bloc, and would next require approval by the group's member states and the European Parliament.
The energy and climate debate, which is playing out across Europe, reflects similar trade-offs being made around the world on mending economic problems today or addressing the environmental problems of tomorrow.
The political and policy response to climate change has failed to keep pace with increasingly dire warnings from scientists about the cascading effects of increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide and other global warming pollutants in the atmosphere.
What progress has been made has come largely from cost efficiencies adopted by businesses and consumers primarily for financial reasons - the switch from coal to cheaper natural gas for electricity generation in the United States, for example, and the cumulative effect of years of increasing efficiency in buildings, vehicles, appliances and manufacturing around the globe.
In Britain, despite public protests, the government is pressing ahead on proposals for fracking, which has helped the United States drive down its energy costs. Germany's plans to shift away from nuclear power by 2022 and to encourage development of alternative sources are running into complications including higher energy costs for industry and consumers.
Josi Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, defended the new proposals as a hard-fought compromise and proof that it "is possible to make a marriage between industry and climate action."
He said the measures showed that Europe was still playing a global leadership role in reducing carbon emissions.
That drew a tart response from Friends of the Earth, which accused the commission of putting the immediate interests of industry ahead of Europe's broader welfare.
"Barroso and his commissioners seem to have fallen for the old-think industry spin that there must be a trade-off between climate action and economic recovery," Brook Riley, the group's climate and energy campaigner, said in a statement. "This position completely ignores the huge financial cost of dealing with the impacts of climate change and the 500 billion euros the EU is spending every year on oil and gas imports."
The British government, a frequent critic of what it sees as moves by the EU that inhibit economic performance, welcomed the proposals. It singled out for praise the scrapping of national targets for renewable energy in favor of an overall goal of producing 27 percent of Europe's energy from renewables by 2030, an approach that will leave countries battling among themselves over who should do more.
"If you set rigid, inflexible targets, that is likely to result in greater costs," said Edward Davey, Britain's secretary of state for energy and climate change. "We believe our existing approach will enable us to meet these objectives without having to take more action, but we believe other countries will have to take more action."
Before Wednesday's announcement, business groups had lobbied hard against more stringent targets that they worried could endanger Europe's still feeble economic recovery and slow the job creation needed to bring down an overall unemployment rate of nearly 11 percent.
In a letter sent to the European Commission this month, 14 executives at large companies called for "one single, realistic target" and warned that "the high-cost of noncompetitive technologies to decarbonise the power sector" would strain businesses already hit by Europe's high energy prices, particularly for electricity, which costs twice what it does in the United States.
Hedegaard acknowledged Wednesday that Europe needed to bring down its energy prices but said that the shift to renewable sources played a "negligible" part in the problem. But she also took a swipe at what she suggested were unrealistic demands by environmental activists, noting that "we are trying to do something that is achievable, that is doable and practical for 28 governments to back."
Greenpeace has called for a 55 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2030, and activists argue that Europe could and should have gone further than the 40 percent carbon emissions proposal, because the bloc is already well on track to meet existing objectives.
In 2007 the EU said it wanted to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent in 2020 and was even prepared to reduce them by 30 percent by the same date if other big economies also took significant action. It also set national targets for adopting renewable energy.
According to the commission, total greenhouse gas emissions from the 28 members had by 2011 fallen to 16.9 percent below the 1990 level, and to 18 percent lower by 2012. That suggests that the 40 percent reduction target by 2030 should be attainable.
But the 2011 and 2012 reductions partly reflect the drop in industrial output in Europe after the financial crisis, which plunged almost all of the bloc's nations into recession - something policymakers are desperate to reverse.
Europeans have also been disappointed that other big polluters have failed to follow the lead they set in 2007.
"The European Union said it wanted to lead globally, but it quickly discovered that other countries were not willing to engage in a race to the top," said Andrew Jordan, a professor at the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, part of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England.