Paris Agreement architect: ‘Carbon neutrality is the target to go for’

French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius (R), President-designate of COP21 and Laurence Tubiana, French head negotiator, react during the final plenary session at the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) in Le Bourget, near Paris, France, 12 December 2015. The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) was held in Paris from 30 November to 12 December. [EPA/PHILIPPE WOJAZER / POOL MAXPPP OUT]

European leaders are expected to talk about climate change at the next European Council meeting (where Brexit will dominate) scheduled 17-18 October, following the UN Climate Action Summit and ahead of the Climate Conference in Santiago de Chile in December.

But inner battles prevail among member states that see Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic holding out against a 2050 net-zero target while Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic are pushing back against a more ambitious 2030 target.

These tensions prevented the European Union to present a more ambitious climate package at the recent UN Climate Action Summit (23 September) in New York, thus preventing the block to fill the void left by the United States and take the lead on climate action.

In an interview with EURACTIV, Paris Agreement key architect Laurence Tubiana gives her take-away from the UN Climate Action Summit and the role of the European Union.

Laurence Tubiana is the CEO of the European Climate Foundation (ECF), the Chair of the Board of Governors at the French Development Agency (AFD) and France’s former Climate Change Ambassador and Special Representative for COP21. In 2018, President Macron appointed her to France’s High Council for Climate Action.

Critics say that the most economically advanced countries have not responded to the climate call with the expected ambition. Do you share this analysis?

The United Nations Secretary-General set the bar where it needs to be ahead of this Climate Summit, and G20 countries’ response to his call was definitely disappointing. Some good announcements were made, but not from most advanced economies, with most of the ambition actually coming from small developing countries.

Major G20 countries such as the USA, Brazil, Canada, Australia, Argentina or Mexico didn’t even come or present any commitments. Others made announcements that remain too incremental and insufficient to address the challenge ahead.

In her speech, the young activist Greta Thunberg said “this is where we draw the line”.[1] The distinction is now clear between the countries that are taking the lead and those lagging behind, simply not hearing the anger from the youth on the streets or the dire warnings of scientists, and their demands for action.

It is clear that we need to keep the pressure up and push large economies, including the European Union, to show more ambition and take the lead in coming months in line with the objectives set by the Secretary General Antonio Guterres on submitting renewed and more ambitious commitments by 2020 (both nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and long-term strategies), stopping new coal projects and mobilising the required finance.

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What about Europe? The European Union came empty-handed insofar as no announcement was made regarding the succession of ambition. Chancellor Angela Merkel presented Germany’s new strategy for 2030, a strategy that is causing an outcry in Germany because it is far too timid. On the other hand, we have seen a country like Greece announce the closure of its coal-fired power plants long before Germany. 

With many of the large emitters lagging behind, expectations for the European Union and its member states to act were high. In that sense, the EU did not go far enough at this Summit to lead the way.

However, clear positive signals came from the President of the European Council Donald Tusk’s speech. President-elect von der Leyen has confirmed that she will present a European Green Deal in her first 100 days in office and suggested a strengthening of the EU’s reduction targets for 2030 to 50% or even 55%. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel both expressed their support of the latter and ambitious 55% reduction target.

This higher level of ambition is what the world expects of Europe as a world leader. The EU and its member states will now need to move to action; to share a message that goes beyond despair and show that taking ambitious climate action is something that we can do. They can lead by example.

EU ministers fudge 2030 climate target lines

Environment ministers agreed on Friday (4 October) to “update” the EU’s current emission reduction pledge next year but fell short of saying by how much. Ten countries blocked attempts by the others to commit outright to an increase there and then.

What are the positive take away of the UN Summit? The increase in contributions to the Green Climate Fund?

A very positive take away from the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit is the establishment of carbon neutrality as a clear benchmark for ambition, with 65 countries, 10 regions, 102 cities, 93 businesses and 12 large institutional investors signing up to an alliance on net zero. It is now clear that all countries, but also other companies, investors and cities will need to set and implement a target to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 or soon after.

A new trend has crystallised for companies to commit to climate action. This was illustrated by Amazon’s commitment to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2040, along with 87 companies with a collective value of over USD2.3 trillion announcing emissions reductions targets in line with 1.5°C.

One of the key objectives set by UNSG Antonio Guterres was to stop any new coal plants by 2020. Many big coal players including China, India, Indonesia and Colombia remained silent. However, many references were made to curtailing existing coal or even phasing it out. Amongst European countries, Greece’s announcement that it will phase out coal by 2028 particularly stood out!

In light of the UNSG’s call to double contributions to the Green Climate Fund commitments, the newly announced pledges amounting to over 7.4 billion USD were of course a good signal. Some positive signals also came from private finance with investors and financial regulators announcing new measures to address climate risk.[2]

Finally, one of the most powerful signals from this Summit was the power embodied by the youth movement both on the streets for the climate strikes taking place before and after the Summit, and as conveyed in several interventions at the Summit itself. They made clear that the current response to the climate emergency is inadequate, and that they will be keeping up the pressure up. They made it clear to government and business leaders that it is no longer acceptable to not do something.

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Estonia has joined a group of 24 member states in favour of an EU plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions drastically by 2050, leaving only the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland unconvinced.

What do these two summits mean for COP25 and especially for COP26?

The science is clear. We have very little time to act. 2020 will be the moment of truth for the Paris Agreement. It is the moment when we will need to implement it.

UNSG Antonio Guterres set the targets high, but the responses are still insufficient. As the UNSG said himself, now is a time for concrete action. The targets he set were the right ones, and what we need now is to scale up action in line with these targets.

The momentum prompted by the Summit will need to be filled by additional political pressure. We will need a group of progressive countries, including the EU, to lead the way, as well as businesses, companies and subnational actors working together. We will also need to put pressure on the large emitters who are currently absent and lagging behind, building 2020 as the moment for ambition.

Carbon neutrality is the target to go for, and COP25 and COP26 will together need to deliver on this target, with commitments from all actors to reach net zero by 2050 or very soon after. Concrete short-term actions – missing from Summit announcements – will also be needed. These different commitments can be captured in the form of enhanced NDCs consistent with 2050 targets and mid- century low-carbon development strategies.

Success will ultimately be judged by how much the gap to reaching the 1.5°C objective is reduced on the basis of these commitments, and the science has made it clearer than ever that we have no time to lose.

[Edited by Sam Morgan]

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[1] “Right here, right now is where we draw the line.”

[2] See Bank of England announcing the first stress test on climate risk management or •      Willis Towers Watson’s CEO, John Haley, showcasing the new Coalition for Climate-Resilient Investments, aiming to ensure this finance avoids climate risks and contributes to resilient infrastructure: 34 companies and organizations with collective managed assets of $5 trillions have signed on.


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