Wildfires, floods and heatwaves raged all over Europe this summer, reminding us that there is no safe place in the fight against climate change. The pandemic impasse provides a unique window of opportunity for the EU to push forward ambitious reforms and lead by example in the transition to a zero-emission world.
Europe and the world stood at a shocking turning point this summer.
Devastating flooding in Belgium, Germany, Japan and South Africa, and raging fires in Greece, Turkey, Russia, the US and Canada have shown us the consequences of our unfettered emissions and climate negligence.
Beyond any doubt, these catastrophes are not something we can live with or adapt to. The pace and the intensity of such episodes have unexpectedly increased to a point of irreversibility and are bound to only get worse, as highlighted by world top scientists in the IPCC’s 6th Report on Climate, published on 7 August.
Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen also raised this alarm at the launch of the EU ‘Fit for 55’ package: “The infernos and hurricanes we have seen over the last few weeks are only a very small window into what our future could look like. Only by acting now, when we still have the policy choices, we can do things another way”, she said.
But apart from being strong on planet-saving rhetoric, are the EU’s policy decisions ambitious enough to tackle this raging climate crisis?
What is fit for the planet?
Considering the science, the principle of global equity and Europe’s historic responsibility for climate change, the EU should be aiming for at least 65% without removals (CO2 ‘removals’ include so-called carbon sinks like forests to account for CO2 reduction, allowing industry to take credit for work done by nature). The ‘Fit for 55’ policy toolkit falls short even in its very title.
The most relevant EU green policy dossier of the European Green Deal not only fails to provide climate-neutral roadmaps and sector-specific targets, it also continues to shield EU industry from paying the full cost of their pollution. The Court of Auditors unearthed this summer a worrying trend whereby public money is often spent to cover costs that polluters should pay. Industry decarbonisation efforts have lost a decade due to low carbon prices and free allowances, which have helped some industrial sectors make profits of up to €50 billion between 2008-2019.
Introducing an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) for the buildings and transport sectors while maintaining free CO2 allowances for industry and using public funds to finance fossil fuels in Europe will de facto shift the cost of pollution from the actual polluters to the final consumer.
A phase-out of fossil fuels at the latest by 2035 is in fact the minimum required to increase our chances of stopping global warming. It is hard to understand how some national recovery plans got the Commission’s approval to channel massive amounts of EU funding into fossil fuel projects, using hydrogen as a lifeline for the gas industry.
Simply put, there should not be any room for fossil fuels in the EU budget and taxonomy.
In the energy/climate equation, the EU’s ‘Fit For 55’ figures fall far short of what science is calling for to curb global warming by 1.5 degrees. The targets for renewable energy and energy efficiency must be increased to 50% and 45% respectively and turned into legally binding policy at national level if we are to avoid further delays in the energy transition.
Another climate-harming sector that is still excluded from meaningfully slashing its emissions under the EU roadmap is agriculture. Despite the fact that up until today the agricultural sector contributes only by 1% to the former 30% reduction target of the Effort Sharing Regulation, the Commission’s proposal provides another free pass for non-CO2 agricultural emissions. It is high time to make agriculture pull its weight in the fight against climate change, setting a transformative agenda for the sector.
Key global actor
One of the most positive steps forward in the new EU climate blueprint is the proposed Regulation on a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) to tackle emissions in imports and increase climate ambition within and outside the EU’s borders.
Europe cannot continue ignoring its carbon footprint beyond its own borders and must plug the gap through which our European lifestyles contribute to emissions elsewhere on the planet. We should remember that the figure of 10%, often cited as the EU’s contribution to global GHG emissions, only refers to our domestic contribution.
However, the proposed CBAM is very narrow and weak in terms of coverage of products and materials, even if a review clause could extend its coverage in the future. The methodology to calculate embedded emissions is not aligned with a comprehensive carbon footprinting of products and materials placed on the market.
COP26: what is at stake
The UN 26th Conference of the Parties on Climate (COP26) led by the UK Government will be of historical importance for the 175 signatories to the 2015 Paris Agreement and will set another landmark.
As we count down to COP26, the EU must do its utmost to rebuild a high ambition, high solidarity coalition of the willing.
Today, Governments and in particular the EU have a moral duty and a political responsibility towards future generations to do whatever it takes to slow the current climate trend.
Decision-makers will have to review and refocus their efforts to tackle the climate crisis with the aim of stepping up global action to fight climate change and implementing timely and effective adaptation strategies.
The EU and its Member States need to urgently recognise the practical impossibility of living in a +2, +3, +4 °C world; they must rethink what they consider politically possible to make the ‘Fit for 55’ truly fit for purpose.
Politics, we know, is the art of the possible. But what is possible is not something fixed and immutable, the pandemic has shown us that. We have to recognise that what is seen as politically impossible today will be recognised as absolutely necessary in the future. The question is, how far in the future? How quickly can we get to that realisation? Because time is not on our side.