Leaders at the European Council meeting in Brussels, Belgium, October 2014.
Most significantly, they have committed to at least doubling carbon pollution cuts between 2020 and 2030. And they have left the door open to being more ambitious if the rest of the world signs up to an international climate deal at the important UN COP21 summit in Paris, in December next year.
Experts like Lord Stern and Professor Jim Skea of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently warned that Europe would need more ambitious targets to keep the climate safe. Nevertheless, we should see the new EU offer as a breakthrough moment.
This pledge from Europe is the first time since 2007 that the leaders of all 28 countries across the European continent have decided to increase their ambition on climate change together.
Time for Washington and Beijing to step up
Coming after fresh progress in the US and China, it shows momentum is at last returning to the global effort to avoid the risks from rising temperatures.
Europe’s new offer is also significant because it is likely to increase the pressure on other major economies considering what new climate pledges and policies they too are prepared to announce in the coming months, in the run-up to the COP21.
Leaders in Washington and Beijing know that their own commitments will be judged against Europe’s level of ambition. Equally, as Elder Mary Robinson – the United Nations secretary-general’s special envoy on climate change – explained earlier this week:
“Strong European leadership can give confidence to developing countries who are already taking ambitious action to help their people avoid fossil-fuel dependence.”
For these reasons this deal should be seen as progress. But the goals outlined are still insufficient to have a good chance of keeping temperatures from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius – the threshold European leaders have said they don’t want to cross.
Europe can still go further
As I recently set out in a report for the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research, detailed analysis shows that Europe needs to at least halve its emissions on 1990 levels by 2030 to get on track.
Some European countries, including the UK and Sweden, are rightly advocating that Europe should raise its target to this level next year; if other major economies show that they too are prepared to do their fair share at COP21. Now it will be crucial for Germany's Chancellor Merkel and French President Hollande to get behind this more ambitious position and help to make it reality.
Number crunchers in the European Commission have shown that raising the EU’s climate target to this higher level would actually provide a boost to Europe’s economic recovery, create many new jobs, as well as improve the EU’s energy security because it would enable a big drop in dependence on fossil fuel imports.
An opening offer – not the last word
As well as pushing forward towards a more ambitious outcome next year, it is necessary for Europe to set out how it will achieve its deeper cuts in greenhouse gas pollution.
Today’s package also includes modest goals for increasing clean energy deployment and improving energy efficiency, but much more clarity is needed over how this will be successfully achieved. In particular, we need to know how the EU will ensure that dirty coal-fired generation does not undermine progress in other areas.
Rightfully, people will now turn their attention to what the US and China have to offer. If the world is to stave off the severe risks from extreme weather events and rising seas, Europe’s announcement this morning must be seen as its opening offer for the UN talks in Paris and not the last word.
Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation.