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The ECA contributing to fighting climate change at COP25

In December 2019, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP) took place in Madrid, its 25th session, and therefore called COP25. It was the third COP where the ECA presented its work. The ECA delegation was headed by Nikolaos Milionis, ECA Member and Dean of the audit chamber responsible for the audit of sustainable use of natural resources. Below he highlights the key issues presented in Madrid and why these findings were relevant to participants in COP25.

By Nikolaos Milionis, ECA Member

Climate change — a long term public concern

Climate change is a major public concern. According to the Special Eurobarometer 490 published in September 2019, eight in ten Europeans think climate change is a very serious problem and almost all respondents (92%) agree the EU economy should be made climate neutral by 2050.

Latest publications indicate that the path to climate neutrality will be challenging. The UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) Emissions Gap Report 2019, published in November2019, concluded that ‘Countries collectively failed to stop the growth in global GHG emissions, meaning that deeper and faster cuts are now required.’ The European Environment Agency’s report The European environment — state and outlook 2020, published on 4 December 2019, showed that ‘Europe faces environmental challenges of unprecedented scale and urgency.’ It calls for immediate and concerted action to achieve the EU’s long-term sustainability goals.

The EU institutions are answering these concerns, putting forward ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction plans for the future. On 28 November 2019, a few days ahead of the UN COP25 Climate Change Conference in Madrid (2–13 December 2019), the European Parliament approved a resolution declaring a climate and environmental emergency in Europe and globally. Two weeks later, the new President of the European Commission, Ms Ursula von der Leyen, released the European Green Deal, with its ambition for Europe to be the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050.

At the ECA we have had climate change on our top priority list for several years now. Within the ECA one of a total of five audit chambers focuses on auditing climate, environment and health issues and their links to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy. In our landscape review EU action on energy and climate change, published in 2017, we highlighted the extensive work carried out on the issue by the supreme audit institutions (SAIs) in Europe. Based on the wide range of audit reports published, we drew attention to seven main challenges that the EU policy maker is facing.

This review showed the key role that external auditors play in promoting accountability, transparency, as well as the efficiency and effectiveness of EU and national policies relating to the fight against climate change. Following this landscape review, we published a series of special reports on climate change. They covered both mitigation, with special report 5/2018 on renewable energy for sustainable rural development and special report 24/2018 on carbon capture and storage, and adaptation, with special report 25/2018 on the EU floods directive and special report 33/2018 on combating desertification in the EU.

The ECA has developed its presence at the COP meetings over the past three years. Former ECA Member Phil Wynn Owen presented the landscape review on energy and climate at COP 23 in Bonn. The following year at COP24 in Katowice, the ECA increased its visibility by organising two events on its special reports on desertification and air quality (special report 23/2018). These presentations attracted the attention of a variety of stakeholders to our findings and recommendations. We also demonstrated the contribution that supreme audit institutions (SAIs) can make by reviewing public policies and measures. We can help assess whether they are delivering the expected benefits and achieving the ambitious long-term climate and environment targets.

ECA reports as a stepping stone to discussion and exchange with experts

Building on these successful past experiences, we decided to run a similar presentation of our latest report on climate issues at COP 25 in Madrid. Special report 18/2019 on EU greenhouse gas emissions was published on 20 November 2019, a couple of weeks before the start of the conference. I had the honour of presenting this report, together with Kristian Sniter, Head of my private office, to a group of highly interested experts and to exchange knowledge on such a complex but crucial issue. The European Commission’s Directorate for Climate Action (DG CLIMA) and the European Environment Agency (EEA) also took part in the discussions on how to achieve further reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in line with the EU’s ambitious long-term objectives.

In our audit we had found that the EU greenhouse gas inventories were well reported, in line with UN rules and guidelines. We noted progress in the quality of the data checked by the Commission and the EEA before transmission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat. The EU emission reduction targets covered the key sectors. The LULUCF (land use, land-use change, and forestry) sector will be included, from 2020 onwards, in the 2030 EU emission reduction targets and international shipping is under consideration for inclusion. The quality of projections is improving; however, they show a gap between the targets set and the effects of the measures taken. Additional efforts will also be required to reach the new target for 2030, which has risen to “at least 50% and towards 55%” under the European Green Deal.

Specific sectoral roadmaps covered 70% of EU emissions, but not some key areas, such as agriculture and LULUCF. Such roadmaps are crucial for the development of the respective sectors in a sustainable way. See also, for further details, our findings on the reporting of mitigation policies and measures to the UNFCCC, on pages 30 to 32. On the basis of our audit, we recommended improving the framework for future emission reductions, by:

  • assessing the case for introducing intermediate measures and milestones at EU level for international shipping;
  • ensuring that the strategic plans for agriculture and LULUCF contribute to achieving the 2050 reduction targets;
  • assessing and reporting to the UNFCCC the impacts on emissions of key EU policies and measures, such as the Emissions Trading Scheme, the Regulations on CO2 emissions from road transport, and other sectors covered by the Effort-Sharing Decision.

Providing building blocks for future climate action

The presentation of our special report on EU greenhouse gas emissions was both relevant and timely for the ongoing discussions at COP25. Emission data is at the heart of the Paris Agreement. It is the main tool to measure whether the parties are delivering on their commitments. It is therefore important that auditors can provide assurance on the quality of the data produced, the more since they are often used for projections for the future. The report also highlighted the challenges of developing a complete set of sectoral roadmaps, aligned with the long-term reduction targets, supported by well-designed policies and measures and including quantified ex ante and ex post estimates of emission reductions to measure progress.

Public auditors can provide credibility for the data, help improve the effectiveness of the policies and measures, and, in the end, contribute to the global effort to achieve carbon neutrality. It is therefore key to continue developing our audit capacity on climate-related issues and present our findings at the COP conferences and other international forums to increase their use as building blocks for future policy making on climate change action.

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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