Adjusting the EU’s climate targets to meet the Paris Agreement

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The global temperature rise must be kept below +2°C by the end of the century to avoid catastrophic climate change. [Greenland Travel/Flickr]

There is no doubt that the Paris climate talks last December surpassed expectations, but we are running out of time to keep the global temperature change below 1.5°C, writes Bert Metz.

Dr Bert Metz has served as chief negotiator for the Netherlands and the European Union on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol and was Co-Chairman of the IPCC Climate Change Mitigation Working Group from 1997 to 2008. He is a fellow of the European Climate Foundation and a member of several scientific advisory boards.

The successful outcome of the COP 21 in Paris was the result of an unprecedented international effort to address the challenge of holding global warming to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels – a target that had already been agreed in Cancun in 2010.

But the Paris Agreement goes further. It calls on the 195 signatory nations to hold the global temperature increase to well below 2°C, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C. This strengthened goal has profound implications for EU climate policy – implications that have not yet been fully understood, let alone acted upon.

The EU has long been a leader when it comes to taking action on climate change. As far back as 2007, it was among the first to set a long-term goal to reduce its total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by between 80% and 95% compared to 1990 levels.  Following the publication of the EU’s pioneering Low Carbon Roadmap in 2011, its policies have been directed towards meeting this long-term goal. But, to date, these efforts have mostly focused on the lower end of that range. For example, the 2030 target of reducing GHG emissions to “at least 40% below 1990 levels” was derived from the 80% long-term target.

Before the Paris Agreement, even this more cautious approach would have made Europe top of the class. But things have changed since the COP 21, and the EU needs to do its homework if it wants to stay anywhere near the top. The new strengthened temperature limit outlined in the Paris Agreement requires a revision of EU targets in line with the latest science. So what does the science tell us?

The bad news: we’re running out of time, and fast. Even in 2015, it became clear that if we want to have a solid chance of reaching our 2˚C target, we have to make significant carbon cuts. With our current emissions, our carbon budget for +2°C will expire in around 20 years from now. For 1.5˚C we have only six years.

The good news: the existing scientific scenarios for limiting global mean temperature increase to 1.5°C show that it is technologically feasibledo show that it is technologically feasible to hold the temperature rise to below that level by the end of the century.

What does this mean in practical terms? To reach the 2˚C target, we need to reduce GHG emissions to “net zero” by the end of the century, meaning that remaining emissions are compensated by equivalent amounts of removals from the atmosphere. To reach 1.5-2oC, as outlined in the Paris Agreement, this has to happen “during the second half of the century”. CO2 emissions will need to reach “net zero” even earlier, as some other greenhouse gases take longer to eliminate. To limit the global temperature increase to 1.5oC, the world needs to reach “net zero” CO2 emissions by around 2050.  Simply put: we can do it, but there’s no time to linger on insufficient ambitions.

What does this mean for the EU?

The science shows that to stay below the 1.5oC limit, taking into account its fair share as an industrialised region in the global effort, Western Europe should reduce its GHG emissions by 90-95% by 2050, compared to 1990. This will have immediate consequences for the revision of the ETS for the period after 2020: if the 2050 target is a 95% reduction from 1990 levels, then the annual decrease of the ETS ceiling needs to be faster than the currently proposed 2.2% per year.

But is this feasible for the EU? As the UNEP Emissions Gap 2015 report notes, compared to 2°C, 1.5°C scenarios show the need for earlier and deeper reductions in the power sector and much stronger energy efficiency improvements in the industry, buildings, and transport sectors; and no delays in global mitigation action beyond 2020.

In addition, a 1.5°C scenario requires more CO2 to be removed from the atmosphere. This is now inevitable, as global action on reducing emissions has been too slow. Massive afforestation and reforestation is one way to do this, but this has limits. The most promising approach is to pair biomass power plants with CO2 capture and storage (CCS) equipment (BioCCS). The first commercial-scale CCS plants are beginning to come online, but the technology requires much higher carbon prices or regulations that require CCS on power plants, steel mills and cement plants in order to be economically viable. Substantial public investment in CO2 transport and storage infrastructure is also needed. However, strong public resistance to CCS, the lack of investment and the challenge of supplying biomass from sustainable sources are major obstacles to be overcome.

The good news is that rapid decarbonisation and investment in energy savings both promise to generate enormous benefits. Radically improved energy efficiency and ever-cheaper renewable energy promise to reduce Europe’s energy bills and help clean its air. The development of innovative, low-carbon technologies offers industrial renaissance and export opportunities for Europe. Finally, aggressive EU action on climate change not only promises to reduce the cost to Europe of future climate impacts, it will also encourage our international partners to increase their own ambition.

So the key massage from the Paris Agreement to the EU is to strengthen its long-term GHG reduction goal from 80% to 95%. All that is needed is the political will to do so. Perhaps the last word is best left to EU Climate Action and Energy Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete. Welcoming the Paris Agreement, he said, “What has been promised must be delivered. Europe will continue to lead the global low-carbon transition we have agreed.”