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Increased goals will bring increased benefits

image credit: Imke Lübbeke, WWF European Policy Office

There is more to the energy transition than just an emissions reduction target


My kitchen window looks onto a small park. A few years ago, a series of field maple trees were planted there. Initially they flourished, their light green leaves increasingly visible to us as the trees grew. But recent summers have been very dry. The heat and lack of water have taken their toll. One of the trees is now dead, several are dying.

Their grey skeletons are a daily reminder to me of the way a warming climate is affecting everything: just one small footnote on a terrifying spectrum of far bigger impacts we are already seeing including food shortages, wildfires, flooding, glacier melt and increased diseases.

It is clear the world is facing a climate emergency. And there is no way of tackling this that does not involve the European Union making drastic, near-term cuts in the greenhouse gas emissions which cause climate change.

This must—and can—be done in parallel with recovering from the covid-19 pandemic. The massive public investment needed for the current crisis must provide the means of tackling the next one.

The European Commission has just proposed a target of at least 55% lower net emissions by 2030. But the proposal falls far short of what is needed, and the changes to legislation it is suggesting are seriously flawed.

Firstly, the target level itself is far too low. The UN emissions gap report suggests a cut of at least 65% is needed for the 1.5°C goal in the Paris Agreement, and that is without taking into account the EU’s responsibility for historical emissions—which puts the onus on the bloc to do more.

Secondly, the type of target suggested muddies the waters. The Commission is proposing that, unlike the current climate target, the new one should include all carbon dioxide removals by ‘carbon sinks’ like forests.

In practice this means that the ‘55%’ target is actually rather lower: probably only around 50-53%, according to the Commission’s data. It is tricky to calculate emissions and removals in the land use sector, meaning the whole target becomes much less certain and open to interpretation. And as we have seen with recent wildfires in the United States, we cannot count on forest carbon stocks remaining stable.

The best way for the EU to encourage emissions removals by natural sinks is via a separate target. This would not only help drive carbon dioxide reduction, it could also reward individual member states for increasing their land use sink. Currently, the EU’s renewable rules allow members to burn trees for energy and claim it as carbon neutral. This is wrong. Forests should be allowed to regenerate.

A higher emissions reductions target of 65% by 2030, and a separate carbon removals goal, are crucial to fighting the climate emergency. But is such a target merely a pipe dream of green campaigners, or is it achievable?

Climact—a consultancy—looked into the implications of reducing emissions by 65% by 2030, and concluded that it “is feasible through rapid action on both technology deployment and lifestyle improvements”. The 65% target would: force electric vehicles to reach 60% to 90% of new sales by 2030; a rapid decarbonisation of the power sector with coal power removed by 2030; and the renovation rate of buildings to double or treble.

Climate Action Network Europe and the European Environmental Bureau, showed that through building renovation and industrial modernisation, energy savings could be ramped up alongside increased renewables and electrification. Together, with a limited use of green hydrogen, this would allow a 65% emissions reductions target to be reached.

The EU wants a ‘green recovery’ from the covid-19 pandemic, and is giving €750 billion to try and make that happen. If that money is used for sustainable, green projects, we can take massive steps forward.

Cutting emissions by 65% on 1990 levels in the next ten years is challenging but feasible, and the financing to do so is available. Taking this step would bring huge benefits. Primarily, it would help tackle the existential threat of climate change. But going further would also bring the EU to the forefront of low-carbon economy technologies and policies, plus help reduce the total cost of the transition by pushing innovation early and avoiding carbon intensive lock-ins.

What is crucial is that this increased climate action takes place in a way that brings opportunities for every part of Europe and leaves no-one behind. There are regions where the economy has depended on coal mining for years and while many of those regions are keen to move to more sustainable models, they need financing to help them get there. The EU’s Just Transition Fund—which will total €17.5 billion—was set up to provide some of that support. But there is a risk that it actually undermines the shift to clean sectors and locks regions into a high-carbon economy if it lends to fossil gas projects as some members of the European Parliament want. As the fund is discussed and agreed between the EU institutions in the coming months, the EU Commission and Council must hold their position and ensure all fossil fuels are kept out of EU funds.

The opportunities are huge, and with the threat of ever worsening climate impacts, not acting is simply not an option. If we increase the 2030 climate target to at least 65% emissions reductions, separately step up efforts on the carbon sinks side, and make the transition to climate neutrality socially just, our economy will become more resilient and our society fairer.

European countries led the way on industrialising their economies, and with that, also emitting vast quantities of greenhouse gases. Now, we can lead the way once more in the next industrial revolution, transforming our economies again by embracing sustainability, climate action and the promise of a clean, green future.

If we do so, it will not just be my local park which benefits. It will be all of us.

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