EU heads of states have agreed on a 55% reduction target for greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, but the inclusion of carbon sinks and the choice of 1990 as the baseline year have led environmentalists to criticise the deal for lacking ambition.
When EU leaders agreed a new climate goal for 2030 on Friday morning after a night of marathon talks, there was a smell of victory in the air.
“Kudos to the EU for pulling the future into the present, with huge benefits for people, planet and profit,” said Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
“I am very happy to be a European these days. Europe committed to climate neutrality by 2050, and now, just as importantly, to put climate and environment at the centre of its economy and society. It’s no longer a climate goal – it’s a societal goal for the EU,” said Laurence Tubiana, CEO of the European Climate Foundation (ECF).
Yet, environmental NGOs were quick to point out that the 55% emissions reduction goal, as ambitious as it seems, is insufficient to contain global warming to manageable levels.
Global emissions need to fall by 7.6% annually until 2030 to reach the 1.5°C target in the Paris Agreement, according to the United Nations’ Emissions Gap report.
That would require a 65% emissions cut in Europe by 2030, something environmental NGOs were keen to highlight on Friday as EU leaders gave their blessing to the 55% goal.
“EU leaders may pat themselves on the back for finally agreeing a new climate target, but this is still a far cry from the victory the climate needs,” said Colin Roche from Friends of the Earth Europe. “Our leaders must go further to deliver Europe’s fair share of global action to cut carbon and live up to the agreement they made in Paris five years ago,” he added.
“Governments will no doubt call it historic, but the evidence shows that this deal is only a small improvement on the emission cuts the EU is already expected to achieve,” said Sebastian Mang, climate policy adviser at Greenpeace. “It shows that political convenience takes precedence over climate science, and that most politicians are still afraid to take on big polluters”.
Speaking on Monday, the EU’s energy Commissioner, Kadri Simson, described the European Council’s decision as a landmark event and responded to NGOs’ criticism: “I think that it is always good when there is certain pressure to do even more, but only one year ago, when we were preparing the Green Deal, there was a scepticism if we would be able to achieve unanimity and this ambitious target seemed very difficult.”
“The decision of the European Council confirms commitment across the EU and ensures we stay on track to deliver our green deal agenda and global commitments,” she added.
In October, Poland and Hungary delayed a vote on the EU’s 2030 climate target, asking for analysis into how it would impact member states.
“What was very impressive was to hear from the member states that despite all of their differences, their national specificities, despite the conditions in the Irish Sea, we can all make our contribution,” said Peter Altmaier, the German energy minister, adding it would be a long and difficult path, but one they are determined to pursue.
Criticism has also been levelled at the 2030 target including carbon sinks, like forests and soil, which sequester carbon and make emission cuts easier. The EU’s previous 2030 target did not include these.
The European Commission has estimated carbon sequestration means the actual reduction would be around 53% while climate scientist, Bert Metz, reckons it would effectively be less than 50%.
“This is a bittersweet moment. More climate ambition is always welcome but the inclusion of sinks in the target waters it down and sets a dangerous precedent that removing carbon with trees and soil is equivalent to not emitting in the first place,” said Mark Preston Aragonès, Policy Advisor at Bellona Europa, an international environmental NGO based in Norway.
Including sinks also makes the reduction hard to calculate and relies on methodologies not yet developed.
“Mixing carbon sinks and emission reductions is an irresponsible accounting trick and undermines the deal’s credibility,” said Sam Van den Plas, policy director at Carbon Market Watch, an international NGO.
Basing reductions on 1990 levels also gives the EU more leeway, as emissions have decreased over the last thirty years, making a 55% target more like a 42% target on 2018 levels.
“The EU’s so called ‘55% reduction target by 2030’ has got nothing to do with a real 55% emission reduction,” teen activist Greta Thunberg, said on Twitter.
The target also does not include certain sectors, like aviation, shipping and goods manufactured outside the EU, critics point out.
“Our leaders must go further to deliver Europe’s fair share of global action to cut carbon and live up to the agreement they made in Paris five years ago,” said Colin Roche, climate justice coordinator for Friends of the Earth Europe.
The EUs so called "55% reduction target by 2030" has got nothing to do with a real 55% emission reduction.
Our article from October explains why all the proposed EU targets are far from being in line with the #ParisAgreement #FightFor1point5 https://t.co/PzORItH05C
— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) December 11, 2020
Unpredictability of climate change
NGOs also say achieving emissions reduction will be made even harder by the increasing impacts of climate change.
Forest fires caused by higher temperatures and more erratic weather release carbon into the atmosphere and destroy trees that could sequester carbon, they point out.
And so-called feedback loops create further complications as melting ice means less reflective surfaces for sunlight, allowing the sun’s heat to be captured by darker seawater instead.
WWF has called on environment ministers meeting this week to “rescue some of the EU’s reputation on climate” and ensure the EU’s climate law includes a review of the target every five years.
The 2030 target will now go into final negotiations between the European Parliament, the Commission and Council and put down into the final text of the draft European Climate Law.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]