But big headline numbers mask retreat from earlier zeal, as Europeans shy away from further burdens on a stagnating economy.
European Union leaders patched over their differences to agree new long-term targets for emissions of greenhouse gases.
At a summit meeting that dragged on until the early hours of Friday morning, heads of government from the E.U.’s 28 member states agreed that, by 2030, emissions of gases such as carbon dioxide would be at least 40% below their 1990 levels.
They also agreed to boost the share of renewable energy sources to 27% of primary energy supply within the next 15 years, and to increase energy efficiency by another 27% from its current level.
Although the numbers sound big, they mask a fading enthusiasm among Europeans to impose further climate-related costs on an economy which is already stagnating.
E.U. Council President Herman van Rompuy called the package “ambitious and cost-effective”, and said it would cement the E.U.’s global authority in tackling climate change. The deal will be the central pillar of E.U. climate policy going into next year’s U.N. summit in Paris, where another attempt to clinch a global deal on emissions reductions is likely to be made.
However, it was attacked by environmentalist groups for abandoning a policy for binding targets at national level, and for failing to ensure that the bloc’s emissions trading scheme will keep the price for carbon dioxide permits high enough to incentivize industry to cut emissions.
“Big polluters will be pleased since they may escape a meaningful pollution price signal for at least another decade,” said Jason Anderson, head of E.U. climate and energy policy at the World Wildlife Fund.
The numerical targets fall short of the 30% targets for renewables and energy efficiency improvements that countries such as Germany had pressed for ahead of time. They were watered down by countries such as the U.K., which fears that renewables are already costing households too much and making industry uncompetitive, and by Poland, which is still dependent on high-polluting coal for most of its electricity supply.
Europe managed to cut its C02 emissions by 18% in the 22 years between 1990 and 2012, so the new targets effectively ask the bloc to achieve something similar over the next 15 years.
The roll-out of renewables has contributed much to that–their share in the total energy mix was 11% by 2012–much of the reduction in emissions has come about by the loss of heavy industry, and the general weakness of the economy since 2009.