Europe’s new climate pledge: more than a glossy magazine cover?

Interview with Agnese Ruggiero

In a ‘normal’ year last month’s big climate announcements by Europe and China would have been a major international talking point, sadly this year is nothing but normal! 

First, the EU Commission during the State of the Union speech set out a plan to raise the block’s 2030 GHG reduction target to overall 55% below 1990 levels. If that wasn’t significant enough, China (a little unexpectedly, and somewhat overshadowed by the Covid pandemic) followed by telling the world that it was planning to take the country carbon neutral by 2060!   These announcements were made in the year that UNFCCC parties were supposed to increase their Nationally Determined Contributions at the now postponed COP26 in Glasgow.  So while the news out of Europe was heavily anticipated, the new commitment from China certainly was not. This could be interpreted as China’s desire to increase its influence internationally by using climate action as one of the vectors.  

Is this a tipping point moment where major emitters are finally going to act on climate change? One thing these announcements do, is to show that geopolitically the EU and China (for the sake of the climate no less) would relish a Biden victory to spur the collective effort. Simply put, four more years of Trump would be an unthinkable outcome for the climate! 

So in light of these developments WT! spoke with Agnese Ruggiero, policy officer at Carbon Market Watch to get the lowdown on what just happened in Europe, and what this might mean for future international climate diplomacy.

What are some of the most noteworthy take-aways from the EU’s new climate plan? 

The von der Leyen Commission wants to go down in history for its efforts to tackle climate change and increasing the EU 2030 target from 40% to 55%. However, it does not seem to want to fully listen to science or follow the UN principles of equity. In order to do its fair share of global climate action to keep the Paris goal in reach, the EU should aim to reduce its emissions by 65% by 2030. 

To achieve a 55% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, the new climate plan relies mostly on a few key elements: more carbon sinks from land, an expanded Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) and carbon border adjustment -ie making imports of high carbon products into the EU pricier – that protects industry during the green transition (and brings them on board).

On the first point: more reliance on carbon sinks for the land and forestry sector does not look good. It means allowing the inclusion of CO2 removals from the land use sector like forests, cropland and grassland, which is not the case under the current climate framework. Besides resulting in accounting trickery, this practice risks to water down the effectiveness of this target. Indeed, initial calculations show that including carbon sinks would result in an effective CO2 reduction of roughly 52% instead of 55%. 

Is the Green Deal for Europe the same as this new climate plan?

Not exactly. With the EU Green Deal, the EU committed to reaching climate neutrality by 2050 and presented a set of policy initiatives it would implement to get there. This climate plan revises the 2030 emission reduction target and is one of the initiatives stemming from the Green Deal. It is a necessary step if Europe wants to seriously achieve climate neutrality by 2050. As the Commission also admitted in the communication earlier this month, with the current climate framework, the EU would get to a 60% reduction by 2050. This plan increases the pace and brings the EU a little closer to achieving climate neutrality by 2050. 

How will this new climate plan help a green recovery? 

The commitment to reaching a higher climate target provides a strong signal for public and private investments. More resources will be made available for climate action and will drive a green economic recovery. For this to be successful though, it’s essential that member states also dedicate the necessary resources to the green transition in the national recovery and resilience plans. 

What impact will this new plan have on the EU’s Emissions Trading System? 

The European Commission’s communication accompanying the impact assessment highlights the need to revise the EU ETS in light of an increased 2030 target. The idea of reviewing the legislation to make it more effective – for example by increasing the pace at which the cap reduces every year – is definitely good. However, implementation of the plan could result in an expansion of ETS to sectors not currently included, such as road transport and buildings, and we are very skeptical about that, but we do welcome shipping’s inclusion. This risks having a very small impact on emissions from these sectors while it could undermine existing legislation such as the effort sharing regulation (ESR).

Are EU member states on board or able/willing to deliver the increased ambition? 

There’s broad support for the Commission’s proposal, and some countries namely Sweden, Finland and Denmark are vocal supporters of a higher, 60-65% reduction goal. To deliver it will certainly require a huge collaborative effort. On the day of the announcement of the new 2030 climate target plan, the Commission also published its EU-wide assessment of National Energy and Climate Plans. I looked at it. It states that “the EU is on track to surpass its current 2030 greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of 40%” by 1%. So, for now,  we can expect a total reduction of 41% by 2030 – a long way to go to 55% or 60%.

If you combine this with the fact that the EU ETS is meant to play a greater role in the new plan, it likely indicates that not all member states are keen on this increased ambition.  The new target will be agreed this autumn. But the real work for legislators starts next summer as the whole EU climate and energy framework will need to be overhauled. We shall see how this all plays out.

By setting a new climate target for Europe by 2030, the EU is essentially signaling a future increase in its international climate commitment (NDC) under the Paris agreement. Do you think this strengthens Europe’s climate leadership? 

The EU is trying to strengthen its climate leadership. The EU Green Deal was a bold announcement as it set the EU on the objective of reaching climate neutrality by 2050. It was a big pledge and now the EU Commission is putting weight behind it, with the Climate Law, the new 2030 target and the carbon border adjustment measure (whatever form that will take). The crucial question is however: are member states willing to carry the same leadership? Otherwise, it is only a glossy cover without substance and the world will see right through it.   

Geo-politically speaking, do you think this announcement is (as some are speculating) an early move towards (hopefully) the new Biden administration in the US, and China to re-evaluate their own targets in 2021 before the next COP? 

It could be. This Commission is trying to be the “geopolitical” Commission. It was certainly followed by China’s announcement of its intention to become carbon neutral by 2060, even though details on implementation are still missing. Hopefully both announcements will also help encourage more ambitious climate action in the US regardless who will make up the new administration.