The EU Climate Law: is it all just a losing game?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A net target implies that continuing emissions will be balanced by carbon removals or offsets, mainly coming from forestry or agriculture. [Tim Gorman / Flickr]

The European Union needs to adopt separate targets for carbon emissions and removals. Otherwise, other countries like Brazil and Indonesia will do the same, which risks undermining talks at the UN’s COP26 conference this year, writes Suzana Carp.

Suzana Carp is Political Strategy Director at Bellona Europa, an international environmental NGO.

Last week marked the first anniversary of the launch of the EU Climate Law proposal. But this anniversary gave little cause for celebration. The European Commission, the Council and Parliament have each found themselves on the losing side of these negotiations so far.

Unfortunately, some of the losses endanger the EU’s leverage at COP26. And despite having just written this, I remain optimistic: things can still be turned around and the EU’s overall international credibility rescued before it is too late. Here is how and why it matters in the bigger scheme of things.

The European Commission originally proposed a Climate Law with a built-in independent review and ratcheting mechanism, every 5 years, so targets could be made more ambitious but not less ambitious over time.

Now this seems to have been lost. Member States were not keen on having an automatic update of the trajectories established in the EU Climate Law. Instead, the document now speaks only of an assessment of the strategies by the Commission every 5 year, with the decision to act on the shortcomings left to the individual Member States.

This implies political chaos in the back and forth to 2050, instead of an automatic, predictable process based on independent assessment. The Commission has lost its most important innovation, and one of the very few elements directly translating a core element of the Paris Agreement.

The EU Council also seems to have lost way towards the end of 2020 by agreeing to a ‘net 55%’ target. A net target implies that continuing emissions will be balanced by removals or offsets. A “gross” target, as the EU has at the moment, includes only actual emissions reductions and offers clarity and predictable trajectories.

The EU had previously done better in this respect. The EU Council had agreed in 2014 not to allow international offsets to play a role in meeting the 2030 targets. And at the tumultuous COP25 in Madrid the EU refused to allow old Kyoto credits for emissions reductions back into the Article 6 provisions and resulting schemes, because so many of them lacked credibility.

While net-zero by 2050 speaks of an equilibrium between emissions and removals in 2050, treating reductions and removals under separate targets helps put emissions reductions on the right track, while making sure removals are real.

Proposing a EU net-target for 2030 now poses a serious risk of allowing this sort of accounting at COP26. If the EU agrees on a ‘net’ target, so will Brazil, Australia, Indonesia and other parties, and worse they may bring back the discussion on the Kyoto credits. The EU’s ‘net’ target for 2030 would position it between a rock and a hard place at the most important international round of climate negotiations since the Paris Agreement.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament has been side-lined by the European Commission’s control of the EU 2030 target discussion. The Commission used its modelling exercise that supported the Climate Plan back in September 2020 to pre-empt the outcome of negotiations ahead of the Parliament having even had the chance to cast its vote.

The Commission modelled only ‘net’ targets, and failed to model any scenario above 55%, clearly against the spirit of a discussion about “at least 55%”. It has also ignored the Parliament’s vote recommending a 60% target. Just a year into the EU Climate Law debate, the European Parliament Rapporteurs on the file sent a letter to the Commission asking it to collaborate in good faith and add to the modelling a scenario above 55%, in line with the EP’s position.

So, a lot seems to have been lost in the past year, including trust between the institutions. But this is not all over yet, and there are still ways to repair the situation. Here is how:

  • In the absence of the automatic review and ratcheting enshrined in the original EU Climate Law proposal, the EU Council could support the European Parliament’s request for a specialised climate change advisory expert body to assess progress and make recommendations to the political institutions on necessary adjustments. This will be an important step in creating the basis for a safe path towards 2050 without risking EU cohesiveness.
  • Regarding credibility and coherence in the EU’s external positioning, the 2030 target would simply require agreeing to a gross –55% reductions target (guaranteeing therefore the “at least” component) and supplementing that with an additional removals target for an additional percentage increase. The reductions and the removals of emissions both need to be accelerated and the EU could set an example ahead of COP26 for how other countries should deliver additionality and acceleration of efforts until 2030.
  • Additional modelling should also be undertaken. While this may be late in the process, let us not forget that we were meant to also celebrate 1 year since the first impact assessment was launched in March 2020. However, that was postponed several times and only made public in September. The race for time needs to be balanced by thoroughness of process and an honest and cooperative attitude from all institutions.

These measures would go a long way to restoring trust between the institutions.

The lose-lose situation we are currently in is far from what is required for a successful implementation of the Paris Agreement, and far from what EU citizens expect from the three institutions. But with decisive action now we can still turn this around into a win-win for the climate and for the EU.

What is needed is separate targets for both, one for reductions in 2030 and one for removals. This will enable negative emissions technologies and offsets to be properly accounted for and not treated as equivalent to emissions.

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