Amid the media’s elation over the United Nations climate deal reached in Paris on Dec. 12, one significant outcome has been overlooked. The European Union failed to achieve its main objective, namely that the agreement adopt carbon-dioxide mitigation commitments that are “legally binding on all parties.”
While this may appear to be a major setback, it liberates Europe from the restrictions of the Kyoto Protocol—which runs out in 2020—and opens the way for more flexible and less damaging policies.
During the Paris negotiations, European Climate Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete warned that the EU “cannot make the mistake we made in Kyoto” where “all the big emitters were outside the legally binding agreement.” For Europe, the Kyoto Protocol has forced EU states to adopt unilateral, and disastrously costly, decarbonization policies. With their manufacturers rapidly losing ground to international competition, governments are increasingly concerned about the threat high energy prices pose to Europe’s industrial base.
...In the run-up to the Paris meeting, the EU warned the Obama administration that, in order to avoid another Kyoto-fiasco, any new accord would have to be based on legally binding pledges by all major economies to cut carbon emissions. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, clearly concerned about opposition to an international climate “treaty” in the U.S. Senate, ruled out Europe’s demand. In contrast to the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris accord is thus based on voluntary pledges of intentions determined and monitored by individual governments in line with their national interests.
Without legally binding decarbonization caps, there will be strong opposition within the EU to making its own conditional pledges legally binding. Poland and other poor states in Eastern and Central Europe are widely expected to rebel against accepting unilateral policies that have undermined Europe’s competitiveness. The governments of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia and Lithuania are opposed to adopting any new carbon targets under these circumstances. Even a number of West European states will be extremely reluctant to continue Kyoto-type unilateralism.
...The toothless nature of the Paris agreement finally allows EU member states to abandon unilateral decarbonization policies that have damaged Europe’s economies and its international competitiveness. Under such circumstances, the unconditional climate policies of President Obama would be left out in the cold. The U.S. administration has pledged to cut carbon emissions by 26%-28% by 2025, no matter what China, India and the rest of the world do in coming decades.
In contrast to Europe’s conditional pledge, Mr. Obama’s go-it-alone policy is unconditional. For the first time, it would appear that Europe’s climate policy is moving in a more rational and realistic direction than that of North America.