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European climate policy in 2020: at the crossroads between leadership aspirations and struggles to put promises into practice

Source: SewCream-Shutterstock

Climate change has become a major political concern for many people. There has been a lot of talk and no lack of calls for action. But to what extent does the world, and particularly Europe, also do the walking? Where do we stand with regard to meeting our long-term climate goals? Charlotte Unger is Research Associate at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany. She is a specialist in national and international climate policy and, as a participant in several climate conferences, has first-hand experience of the negotiations over climate action. She analyses the aspirations and what the challenges are to achieve them, also zooming in on the role the EU has played and can play in the future to ensure that words become reality… within the deadlines pledged.

Charlotte Unger, Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS)

In 2019, the debate on climate change shifted markedly…

2019 saw the development of a new dimension in the public discourse on climate change worldwide. With youth groups at the forefront of the climate movement in many European countries, climate change has become a prominent topic once again. Support for climate action has been growing in the private sector as well, with positive signals from some of the most emissions-intensive industries. For example, hydrogenbased technologies could soon bring change to the energy-intensive steel industry, and the first fossil-free steel-making technologies could be expected as early as 2025 (as announced by Swedish steel giant SSAB).

Moreover, climate change is becoming more tangible, with Europe experiencing yet another ‘warmest winter on record’ in 2019–2020 and recent data marking perhaps yet another unusually dry summer. But we also have more scientific evidence than ever about the phenomenon: for example, what is remarkable is the knowledge about ‘tipping points’, conditions which, if crossed, lead to far-reaching, and/or irreversible consequences for the stability of life on Earth. (1)

The good news is that our knowledge of how to deal with climate change and our experience with tools and practices for reducing emissions are also increasing. The bad news is that we also know that we are not doing enough. The sum of actions pledged by countries under the Paris Agreement, their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), will not achieve the treaty’s target of keeping global warming well below 2°C, ideally limiting it to 1.5°C. Even if fully implemented, NDCs only amount to one third of the necessary greenhouse gas reductions, as experts from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) have been warning for some time. (2)

…yet little was achieved in terms of concrete action

Heralded as a year for action, 2019 turned out to be a year of high-profile events and words: while the spirit of change evoked by youth climate movements around the world was reflected in the language of many politicians, it did not translate into meaningful action. Large conferences, such as the UN Climate Action Summit in New York and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference in Madrid (COP25), had raised high expectations but concluded with little progress. Given the requirement of the Paris Agreement that countries review and update their NDCs by 2020, it had been hoped that countries would use these events to reveal their plans for more ambitious policy objectives; the fact that this did not happen made the lack of progress all the more disappointing.

The Climate Action Summit in New York was promoted at a very high political level; heads of governments contributed emotional speeches at the event. Although 69 countries promised to strengthen their NDCs, and a total of 77 countries have now pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, concrete measures, such as more ambitious reduction targets and timelines, were thin on the ground. And, as is so often the case, major emitters such as the USA, China and India all failed to make any significant commitments.

Source: Arcady/shutterstock

This lack of courageous action was again evident at COP 25 in Madrid in December 2019, which ironically had been launched under the slogan ’Time for action.’ There was much frustration that the summit’s declaration did not even include a clear call for countries to raise their ambitions on climate mitigation efforts. Such a call, although having no legal force, would have sent a signal of commitment to the common goal of combating climate change.

States also failed to agree on the completion of the rulebook for an essential part of the Paris Agreement: Article 6 that regulates the use of market-based mechanisms for emissions reductions. This is important because Article 6 allows for the international transfer of emissions reductions from one country to another. If such transactions are not managed with strict rules, there is a risk of double counting of reduction efforts. In principle, countries’ emissions reductions could be accounted for in domestic targets and then sold to other countries which could also include them in their goals. Ultimately, this would lead to an overall increase in global greenhouse gases.

Need for urgent action in 2020 — especially for the EU…

Where does the EU stand? The EU Commission has promised to provide an updated NDC under the Paris Agreement and called for a Green Deal that sets a broad frame for climate policy. But key ingredients, such as targets and measures common to both plans, still need to be framed in legally binding provisions. Also, concrete and feasible measures have to be attached to these plans in order to make sure they remain credible and give the EU a leadership role in the international community. Even though, more recently, the ‘Covid-19 crisis’ has overshadowed climate change as a political priority and will have an impact on many near-term policy decisions, this should not stop the EU from implementing an ambitious Green Deal and submitting an improved NDC.

The EU is not on track: its current NDC will fail to achieve the 1.5°C target under the Paris Agreement, according to analyses by experts from the Climate Action Tracker initiative. A core piece of the NDC and Green Deal is, for example, the EU’s emissions reduction goal. Currently, the EU has the target of reducing its greenhouse gases by 40% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. Experts from Climate Action Tracker calculated that, by implementing the EU’s renewable and energy efficiency goals, the EU would already achieve 48% emissions reductions. The EU Commission’s plans to raise the targets to 50–55% are therefore not overly ambitious but imply only a small bit more than what we are achieving anyhow. In fact, many stakeholders have called for a 65% reduction target, since even the 55% would not bring us on track on an emissions pathway compatible with the Paris Agreement. Yet, what seems a rather small step in terms of effort is a big jump politically. Adopting a more ambitious target sends a signal to the world of climate policy commitment and a vision of a more sustainable future.

As part of the Green Deal, the EU Commission has announced its goal of emissions neutrality by 2050. It intends to make this commitment legally binding through the proposed climate law of March 2020. This is a step in the right direction, however it remains unclear what emissions neutrality consists of. From a scientific perspective, ‘neutrality’ comes with many options and uncertainties concerning, for example, which emissions and pollutants it includes or how ‘negative emissions’ — meaning measures that absorb or capture GHGs, such as carbon sinks and compensation measures — will be accounted for. Negative emissions can include politically highly controversial issues such as climate engineering and the extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Thus, the pathway towards achieving our climate objectives matters. Mid- and long-term targets must be supplemented with intermediate steps, such as an interim target for 2040. This is important not only because by 2050 none of today’s policy makers will be in office to be held accountable for their promises, but also because the more we postpone actions now, the more expensive and the more difficult it will be to achieve emissions reductions on a large scale later.

The broadly framed objectives in the EU’s NDC and Green Deal need to be further concretised with measures. Tackling the transport, agriculture, and living sector is good, but many of the actions proposed merely scratch the surface of the problem. We should broaden our efforts; for example by also tackling non-CO2 emissions, such as methane, which has an 84 times stronger warming effect than CO2; or black carbon, which has an outsized warming effect on the Arctic and also directly threatens air quality and health, making it especially relevant for society. More force can be put behind the energy transition, undertaking a structural change and delineating clear pathways for the withdrawal from coal-based energy production. As colleagues from the Climate Analytics think tank noted, phasing out coal by 2040 is not only a necessary measure, it is probably the most important step we can take if we want to make the 1.5-degree target a reality.

…also by speeding up its decision making

To achieve all this, action within the EU is required, as all countries need to be on board. Large and wealthy countries such as Germany should aspire to more ambition at EU level as well. Germany’s climate package shows good will. But there is still a long way to go in terms of ambition and the effectiveness of these measures and the equitable distribution of costs relating to climate change mitigation.

The EU also needs to speed up its decision making process. Propositions from the Green Deal and climate law have to be fed into the required (and promised) update of the EU’S NDC under the Paris Agreement. Yet, the recently proposed climate law and new binding emissions reduction targets are still far from being agreed. Targets should be decided by autumn 2020, when countries plan to take on negotiations under the UNFCCC, catapulting the EU into a much-wanted international leadership position.

Yet the scheduled process is too slow: even before the outbreak of the ‘Corona crisis’, discussions were not planned until September. Due to the Corona pandemic, COP26 in Glasgow, originally scheduled for November 2020, has been postponed and at the date of writing no new date has been scheduled. However, the next ‘intersessional’ meetings under the UNFCCC are planned for October 2020 and the updated NDCs have to be submitted in 2020.

First and foremost, the EU must not allow its pace to be dictated by climate laggards such as the USA, Brazil or China; instead it should take on a leadership role. The habit of waiting for the mobilization of other actors (or the US general elections in November 2020) delays urgent action and loses precious time. Instead, the EU could use the current void of international leadership and step in with courageous action. Compared to many regions of the world we have many supportive elements in place: knowledge capacity and technological expertise, support from large parts of the public and increasingly also the private sector, and last but not least, the necessary economic strength.

Moving from negotiation to implementation

The COP has come a long way since the constitution of the UNFCCC in 1992 and the first COP in Berlin (1995). Most notable is the turn from the centralized, top-down process that marked the Kyoto Protocol, where industrialized countries committed to targets to keep a global emissions budget, to the Paris Agreement, in which all UN countries contribute with individual approaches that together should keep the temperature below 2°C. COP26 in Glasgow is a critical moment that will largely determine the effectiveness of what is probably the most important climate agreement of our time. It should largely conclude the negotiation process itself, so that the following COPs can move towards implementation.

The Covid-19 crisis adds a new challenge to climate policy in 2020. European countries are facing a major economic shock and several voices have started to demand that important climate political decisions should be postponed. Nonetheless, the Covid-19 pandemic does not change the urgency of climate change and our responsibility to act on it. We can only hope that instead of going back to business as usual, this new challenge incentivises us to readjust our current pathway; towards stronger cooperation and sustainability.

Climate protection: complexity management on a mammoth scale

The disappointing conclusion of the climate conferences and the debate over climate policy targets in the EU highlight the enormity of the challenge that climate change presents to societies. On the one hand, we know that tackling climate change will require stricter regulations, more ambitious goals and clear road maps for the implementation of climate action. At the same time, however, protecting the climate has become an exponentially complex undertaking.

Climate policy touches on a multitude of issues, and needs to take into account complex interrelations with other policy areas. Otherwise, some measures that in principle are beneficial for the climate could even have negative impacts. For example, some technologies that are promoted as climate-friendly — combustion of biomass and other biofuels for home heating or transport, for instance — may emit more particulate matter, including black carbon, than the technologies they replace, and thus continue to threaten air quality and human health and potentially warm the climate. Action on climate change needs to be integrated with many more policy processes, such as biodiversity protection and sustainable development.

Climate governance itself has also become more complex, with many more actors involved in the process than at the founding of the UNFCCC. In addition to governmental actors from the subnational to the international level, diverse inter- and non-governmental initiatives, transnational alliances, and the public — with a broad spectrum of people and groups, ranging from populists to climate sceptics to youth activists, — play a role in climate politics. While more and diverse actors can principally increase the knowledge and problem solving capacity for climate politics, they also multiply the interests involved.

Here, science can have a (new) role. Mastering this balancing act requires some fresh thinking and a willingness to adopt holistic approaches focused on participation and sharing — be it by involving stakeholders from civil society in dialogues at UN climate negotiations or in the development of measures in the context of national climate policymaking, or by coupling structural change with measures that offer communities a sustainable future. Transnational and transformative research may help to design and to accompany such processes. It could also examine how to scale up best practices from the very local level to the regional, national and international contexts and explore how all relevant aspects and actors can be included while still keeping up the rapid pace of action needed.

We know that this is a massive challenge for politics, science and society. It is also an opportunity to deliver outcomes that are innovative, good, and equitable. Let us learn from the current Covid-19 crisis how important it is to act on the basis of the precautionary principle. Let us be more courageous and demonstrate how stepping up, collaboration, and solidarity can be effective and transformative for the climate crisis as well.

This article was first published on the 2/2020 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.

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