Like most of the developed world, European citizens are suffering from 'green fatigue' - claims that it is too late to do anything about climate change alternating with demands that more action is needed right now. Solar power has been an expensive endeavor and hasn't led to private sector uptake as promised. Even Chinese solar panel companies that relied on Western subsidies are collapsing.

In reality, no one is sure what works and what doesn't but the heads of the EU member states are meeting in Brussels to discuss the adoption of a 40 percent greenhouse gas reduction target for 2030. Advocates claim such front runner action could reduce future global warming by more than 1 degree - if their bold leadership induced others to join by 2030.

“Leading by example needs to be convincing to other countries,” says Elmar Kriegler of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, lead author of a new paper on the subject. “Therefore, front runners best ensure success of their efforts by demonstrating the economic feasibility of strong emissions reductions and by making it attractive for others to join.”

The paper says that even if others waited until 2030 to join, there might only be a 0.2 degrees Celsius overshoot of current targets if Europe led the way. And Europe's unilateral leadership could be achieved at little extra cost for the EU because it already has implemented significant climate and energy policies that are expected to reduce emissions by 30 percent in 2030. The study investigated EU front-runner action in line with its road map for moving to a low carbon economy, including an emissions reduction of 40 percent in 2030 compared to 1990. 

There seems to be no reason Europe shouldn't take the lead, it was France and Germany who picked the 1990 target date. 

Carbon leakage is found to be small

Another reason why the costs for Europe are estimated to be low is that overall carbon leakage is projected to be small. One big fear of economies cutting greenhouse-gases is that energy-intensive industries migrate to parts of the world with much lower environmental standards, or that a decrease of fossil fuel use in one region reduces world market prices for coal, oil, and gas and hence drives up consumption elsewhere. Both effects can negate some of the frontrunner's efforts. The new paper found this effect to be small, with leakage rates around or smaller than 20 percent in all but one model. The leakage rate measures the fraction of excess emissions in the rest of world compared to the emissions reduction by the front runner. 


America has already dramatically reduced its emissions, thanks in large part to a switch to natural gas and most manufacturing having left the country. If China were to stop hiding behind developing nation status and joined the EU in leading the way to a global climate regime, early action could reduce emissions until 2030 by a multiple of what the EU alone would achieve, increasing the probability of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. 

A lock-in into fossil fuel infrastructure could waste billions

The transitional challenge that late-comers face when joining a global climate regime is due to the difficulty of rapidly elevating efforts from a low to an ambitious level, according to the study. "The risk of being locked into fossil fuel infrastructure is a major argument against delayed action," says co-author Keywan Riahi of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. This refers for instance to newly built coal fired power plants. "Today's energy planners are making investment decisions in the order of hundreds of billion dollars, which can turn into stranded assets once climate policies are introduced. This is why delays are costly, besides increasing the risks that stringent climate objectives might get out of reach."

The new multi-model study is part of the AMPERE project ("Assessment of Climate Change Mitigation Pathways and Evaluation of the Robustness of Mitigation Cost Estimates") and will be published in a special issue of the journal Technological Forecasting&Social Change. AMPERE established a European platform of state-of-the-art energy-economy models to undertake a series of analyses on the implications of short term climate policy for achieving long term climate objectives. It is coordinated by PIK and IIASA. The funding is provided by the European Union.