A climate change of heart by the European Union?

Green activists demonstrate in front of the European commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. European Commission released a White Paper outlining its proposal for 2030 EU climate and energy policy on Jan. 22.
(Olivier Hoslet / EPA)

Confronted by rising energy costs and international competition, the European Union’s executive body has recommended relaxing rules on renewable energy with a plan that doesn’t hold specific nations responsible for specific targets. The EU’s member states and Parliament should reject it. The EU has been the leader on fighting climate change; if it shies away from its commitment now, similar efforts in the U.S. and around the world will almost surely suffer.

On a positive note, the recommendations call for creating an overall target of a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, compared with what they were in 1990. It’s a worthy target, though environmentalists would like it to be even higher; the 28-nation bloc has reduced such emissions by 12% so far. By 2030, the EU is supposed to get more than a quarter of its energy from renewable sources. But the plan would eliminate binding agreements under which each member nation would have to meet certain targets. So which nations would be responsible for attaining the 2030 goal and how would they be held to it? That’s unclear. In addition, the plan would loosen environmental regulations on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for natural gas.

Driving the changes are concerns about the struggling European economy. With energy costs higher because of reduced reliance on cheaper fossil fuels, European businesses are in a weak position to compete with those in nations without strong environmental rules.


The sluggish economy has also exposed a weakness in the EU’s cap-and-trade program, in which carbon emissions are capped and polluters are allowed carbon credits that they can trade with one another. When business is slow, there are more plants with carbon credits to sell than there are customers for those credits.

European government leaders who back the plan have a point: The continent can’t afford to be the only one trying to make real inroads on global warming. But at a United Nations conference in 2015, member states are expected to sign on to a broad agreement on the steps they will take to sharply reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. A scaling back by the EU’s leaders will only weaken the resolve of other nations. That includes the United States, where fracking has brought down the price of natural gas and made renewable energy sources less competitive.

No one said that reducing the threat of climate change would be cheap in the short term or that the world’s economies would adjust easily. Nevertheless, it’s the failure to act that, in the long run, would have far greater costs.