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EU’s underwhelming 2040 climate target shifts responsibility to future generations

The proposed 2040 climate target for the European Union may take some of the political heat off the EU’s climate policies but it is woefully inadequate for tackling the climate crisis. This dearth of ambition also afflicted the simultaneously released paper on industrial carbon management.

Today, the European Commission published two keynote climate strategies: the 2040 climate target and the industrial carbon management communication (ICMC).

The 2040 target recommended by the Commission aims for a 90% net emissions reduction compared with 1990 levels. While self-promoted as ambitious, this is a full 10% off the net zero the EU should achieve by 2040 if it is to contribute its equitable share to global efforts to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. This is not only desirable but entirely feasible, as numerous researchers have demonstrated.

“If history teaches us anything, the European Commission has consistently low-balled the EU’s climate goals. Unfortunately, the proposed 2040 target is no exception,” says CMW policy director Sam Van den plas. “In addition to setting an inadequate 2040 goal, the Commission also failed to beef up the EU’s 2030 climate policies and, regrettably, a 2035 climate target is also nowhere to be seen.”

Falling through the net

Moreover, the ‘net’ in the ‘net 90%’ risks camouflaging inaction by replacing real emissions reductions with carbon sinks and technical removals that future generations of policymakers and citizens will have to pay for and deliver on. The proposed target for carbon removals and sequestration is 400 Mt carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) annually by 2040, with the actual emissions reduction target at 82%. The vast majority of those 400 Mt are to be reached through risky and uncertain temporary storage in soil and vegetation.

This is unrealistic and risky because the carbon absorption capacity of the EU’s land sinks have been in decline for many years now and storage in natural systems is in constant risk of releasing the stored carbon back into the atmosphere. Technical removals are in their infancy and it is unclear whether they will ever be deployable sustainably at the scale envisaged both to counterbalance the last remaining emissions and remove accrued CO2 from the air. Given the short supply of permanent removals and vulnerability of soil and vegetation as carbon stores, it is best to follow the science and limit reliance on them.

“Although the books can be cooked, the atmosphere cannot be cheated,” notes Wijnand Stoefs, CMW’s lead expert on carbon removals. “When you lift the net, the gross target is only 82% – this is wholly insufficient. If the EU wants to call itself a climate leader it should strive for climate neutrality by 2040 and limit reliance on uncertain and risky permanent removals and temporary sequestration.”

This is why CMW and over 110 other civil society organisations, corporations, business associations, think tanks and scientists had called for the establishment of separate 2040 emissions reductions and removals targets. It is disappointing that the European Commission ignored this call, which was echoed by the majority of respondents to the public consultation on the 2040 climate target. 

It is now up to the European Parliament and Council of the EU to demand that the 2040 target be made more ambitious and separated into its component parts. “Setting separate targets enhances accountability and ensures effective climate action,” explains Fabiola De Simone, CMW expert on carbon removals. “By so doing, the EU can more efficiently address the benefits and challenges of land sequestration and permanent removals, while making crystal clear that reducing emissions remains the primary focus.”

Carbon confusion

The 2040 target and industrial carbon management communications confuse and conflate permanent with temporary carbon storage, and the ICMC fails to identify what constitutes valid uses of carbon dioxide removals (CDR), carbon capture and storage (CCS) and carbon capture and utilisation (CCU).

CDR, and CCS and CCU usage each impact the climate differently, and can even lead to more emissions if done badly. For more info, see ‘Penetrating the carbon removals smokescreen’.

The strategy also fails to define which sectors’ emissions, and what proportion of these emissions, are truly unavoidable or ‘hard to abate’. The EU needs to assess which emissions are so important to society that they cannot be eliminated by 2040 instead of continuing to pass this hot potato to future generations.

“The industrial carbon management strategy implicitly allows fossil fuel use in the power sector well beyond 2040, which is a major and unacceptable loophole, stepping back from earlier commitments,” observes Van den plas.  “At COP28, the EU supported the phase out of fossil fuels – the European Commission is putting the EUs international reputation at stake.” 

On the plus side, the carbon management strategy clearly states that the deployment of CCS will depend on the price signal given by the EU Emissions Trading System, and not wasteful public subsidies. The document also expresses welcome, but ultimately insufficient, scepticism regarding the trading of carbon removals on the EU ETS, a tool that should remain squarely focused on reducing emissions.

One major problem that afflicts both the 2040 target and the carbon management strategy is the confusion and conflation of different concepts with different climate benefits, such as temporary and permanent carbon storage, carbon storage and use, as well as emissions reductions and removals. The headline net 90% target is only reached by falsely equating permanent removals, temporary storage and emissions to one another. 

Even worse, the 2040 target runs the explicit risk of promoting the false solution of offsetting rather than slashing emissions, with industrial removals touted as a means to decarbonise the energy sector (which they aren’t because only phasing out fossil fuels can do that).This blurring of the lines and assumption that offsetting is effective is a recipe for potential disaster.

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