France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have simultaneously launched a call for the European Union (EU) to commit to a larger reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. In recent months, the EU has weathered economic troubles. But the current plan for increased energy cuts is being billed as a bid to help economic recovery and to shore up energy security.

Currently, the agreed EU target is to reduce energy use by 20% from 1990 levels by 2020. In scientific terms, the current 20% reduction target is not likely to restrict global temperature rise to the 2°C – the key climate danger threshold identified by the IPCC.

The main line of argument being repeated across the three major EU powers is that Europe’s current focus on recovery from recession must not distract from the type of economy that is appropriate in the medium and long-term. Thus, Jean-Louis Borloo, France’s Energy and Climate Change Secretary, states that “without a path to a sustainable low-carbon future, we will face continued uncertainty and significant costs from energy price volatility and a destabilizing climate.” His counterparts, in the UK and Germany respectively, Chris Huhne and Norbert Roettegen, agree. “We’re determined to make the economic case for the EU to cut its emissions by 30% by 2020 as quickly as possible,” Huhne said.

The current argument is that the recession itself has cut emissions in the EU’s traded sector by 11% from pre-crisis levels. Thus, the current carbon price is too low to stimulate significant investment in “green jobs” and “green technology.” Thus, Borloo, Huhne and Roettegen contest that if the EU sticks to 20% reduction targets, Europe is likely to lose the race to compete in the low-carbon world to countries such as China or the USA—which, following from the Copenhagen COP, they are looking to create attractive environments for low-carbon investments.

Though, reduced emissions during the recession has brought projected annual costs in 2020 of meeting the existing 20% target down a projected third from €70bn ($89bn, £59bn) to €48bn. A move up to 30% is now estimated to cost only €11bn more than the original cost of achieving a 20% reduction. To put this into perspective, according to the International Energy Agency, every year of delayed investment on low-carbon energy sources costs €300bn to €400bn at the global level into the future.

But it remains to be seen what the tangible motivation will be for increasing thresholds on carbon reductions to 30%. In the past, feed-in tariffs have been successful; but with a declared reduction target, perhaps even written into law formally, there will be issue with anxiety related to the current recession. Also, competition is key to motivate changes and the USA Congress just dropped the proposed comprehensive climate change package.

The Environment Ministers in the UK, Germany, and France have addressed general public in their call for increased reduction targets. In recent months there has been a surge in popular press discussion of extreme temperatures. The first six months of 2010 brought a string of warmest-ever global temperatures. Connecting these extreme weather months to long-term climate change patterns remains difficult, according to experts. “When we are looking at the scale of a season or a few months, we can’t talk about trends related to climate change,” Herve Le Treut, head of France’s Laboratory of Dynamical Meteorology. But, for the general public these extreme temperatures reflect the concept of climate change.

Between the extreme temperatures recently and potential business-case outlines, 30% reduction targets seem to have some potential. But only time and changing circumstances will tell…

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