In 30 years time, will government carbon reduction targets even matter?

Occupy rooftops solar community
CC BY-SA 2.0 Arlington County via Flickr

The European Union recently agreed to a 40% reduction in CO2 emissions, based on 1990 levels, by 2030. Unsurprisingly, the significance of this deal depends on who you speak to. Britain's energy minister Ed Davey told The Guardian it was the most significant environmental agreement the UK has entered into, bringing coal-dependent nations like Poland onboard with cutting their emissions. Meanwhile, according to Mintpress News, Molly Walsh of Friends of the Earth Europe said the commitment was “barely more than business-as-usual.” Oxfam and Greenpeace also weighed in with disappointment at a lack of ambition for the deal.

What really interests me, however, is the growing evidence that we may see radical change in our energy and transportation systems despite, not because of, such international climate deals. From the radical drop in solar power costs through electric car sales that are beginning to look like the early stages of a disruptive innovation in the marketplace. (Remember pre-cellphone landlines, anyone?) From China's coal use declining to massive corporations aiming for 100% renewables. Significant parts of the current carbon-intensive economy may find their days numbers whether or not governments step up and do what needs to be done.

That said, I don't intend to argue that the EU's carbon reduction targets don't matter. Leaving aside the fact that cutting emissions from cars or coal may prove much easier than tackling the impact of agriculture, or aviation, we can't forget that international deals still send signals about which way the wind is blowing.

By doing more than most, the EU's leaders have opened up opportunities for long-term investment in clean tech and emissions reductions. By not doing as much as the science suggests we need, they've demonstrated the need for environmentalists to also look elsewhere for climate leadership. And here, the actual wording of the EU deal is important, wording which Ed Davey claimed in The Guardian may actually be leverage to encourage action from others:

“The package is clear that it is ‘at least 40%’ – so the review is upwards only,” Davey said. “If we get a really good deal and America and China step forward, it means that we can go further. But the EU is saying that we are going to do 40% regardless of the rest of world.”

A left-leaning client of mine recently lamented the "increasing toxicity and irrelevance of government." I am not yet ready to give up on government. But when Mars confectionery shows more leadership than the leaders of our nations, you do have to wonder. Time to push our leaders to prove that "at least 40%" becomes the baseline for more ambitious, more principled, more far-reaching change.

In 30 years time, will government carbon reduction targets even matter?
The answer, most likely, is yes and no.

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