European parliamentarians voted yesterday against a proposition to raise the continent's target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 to 30% from the current 20% based on 1990 levels.
Nicholas Stern, author of the Stern Report, called the result “a missed opportunity". He said it means that the “European Union risks falling behind in the economic growth story of the future."
The vote, postponed till yesterday from the end of last month, was 347-258 against the proposal with 62 abstentions.
Many Conservative MEPs voted against the proposal in defiance of David Cameron's wishes. Amendments had been tabled by the Conservative grouping that would have weakened the resolution and these were rejected by the Green MEP group.
Martin Callanan MEP had earlier issued a statement giving reasons why the Conservatives would not vote for the higher target. "I am in favour of increasing the EU target to 30%, or even higher, in the context of a global agreement where our competitor countries take similar action," he said. "Increasing our own targets while the rest of the world does nothing will have virtually no measurable affect on global emissions because it will force large EU emitters to relocate to other countries outside the EU where they will continue to emit at a much lower cost."
He also said that it would mean that the bloc would leak jobs in energy intensive industries and suffer higher energy prices for consumers.
This was disputed by supporters of the increased target, who pointed to the European Commission's recent Roadmap to 2050 report which says that, to the contrary, the €270bn of investment needed to meet the more ambitious goal would be more than offset by €320bn savings in fuel costs and air quality benefits worth up to €88bn a year by 2050.
Other opponents of the move include Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger and Poland, which has just taken over the European Union presidency.
Poland relies on coal for 95% of its electricity supply, and Prime Minister Donald Tusk had earlier insisted that Poland would resist the imposition of the emissions reduction targets. "When it comes to the Polish economy we simply can't afford it," he was quoted as saying.
Polish Budget Commissioner Janusz Lewandowski has even expressed scepticism that climate change is happening.
Environmentalists have accused Poland of bending the law "in breach of both Polish law, including the Polish Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) Act and the EU ETS Directive" to get free greenhouse gas emissions permits for 11,700MW of coal-burning plants it wants to build on the day before it took over the presidency.
These free emissions allowances are effectively an incentive to pollute. Client Earth, an environmental NGO, is to ask the European Commission to reject the application when Poland applies for approval by the end of September.
"We're looking at legal action in Poland," said Karla Hill, Client Earth's director of programmes.
If Poland is allocated the free emissions allowances, it will add to a predicted glut of carbon permits in the EU's emissions trading scheme (ETS) between now and 2020.
This oversupply could total 1.9 billion tonnes according to environmental NGO Sandbag, which estimates that in Phase 2 of the ETS between 2008-2012, around 672 Mt (million tonnes) of carbon will be banked, from an excess of 855 Mt, and carried over into Phase 3.
"The recent freefall in the price of carbon has a simple, underlying cause - a huge oversupply of permits," Damien Morris, said the author of the study Buckle up! Tighten the cap and avoid the carbon crash. He added that at least 1.7 billion permits now need to be removed from the market to prevent a crash.
"If Brussels fails to reform the ETS then it is setting up Europe to fail when it could so easily be leading the world," added Sandbag's founding director, Baroness Bryony Worthington.
Meanwhile, the issue of trying to get Europe's greenhouse gas emissions target raised to 30% will continue to be debated, but is unlikely to get anywhere unless it can be shown that other countries, in particular China and the United States will sign up to similar targets.