How Europe can make climate neutrality a reality

With the election of Joe Biden following on the heels of the European Green Deal, the sands are finally shifting – in favour of successful global action to halt the warming of the planet

Jörg Farys / Fridays for Future CC BY

We stand at a pivotal moment in our history. We are feeling the weight and the sadness of the human tragedy of 2020, but we have not yet felt the full force of the economic fallout from the global health crisis. How we try to bounce back from this crisis will dictate our future on this planet. But there is reason for hope, in spite of the economic pressures.

The pandemic has shown how vulnerable we are to nature’s forces. And, while climate change may act more slowly than a virus, it will prove equally deadly, as we know already from the victims of increasingly severe whether events and from the economic disruption climate change creates. We know that we must stop the growth of greenhouse gases now, achieve a balance between emissions and removals shortly after mid-century, and accelerate their removal them from the atmosphere thereafter. In Europe, we have called this “climate neutrality”. We want to achieve it by 2050 at the latest. We know that Europe alone can only make a dent in this global threat, but we believe we can offer everyone else on our planet a working model of a modern, competitive, prosperous, and climate-neutral economy and society by 2050, in which no one is left behind.

This goal is a huge undertaking, but it does not have to mean economic sacrifice. Europe has a proven record of achieving economic growth while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Between 1990 and 2019, EU economies reduced their net greenhouse gas emissions by one-quarter while still increasing their combined GDP by over 60 per cent. The European Union and its member states today have in place all the laws and the measures needed to achieve our current target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 per cent by 2030, and in fact overshoot it. Yet, this is not enough. At the rate of change that these laws would bring, Europe would have to further accelerate its efforts after 2030, potentially curbing economic growth.

Europe’s climate goals can help overcome the economic crisis brought about by the pandemic

This is why the European Green Deal makes our 2050 commitment legally binding in the EU Climate Law, and why the European Commission has proposed an ambitious climate target plan for 2030 to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 per cent. The commission’s impact assessment shows that this is achievable and beneficial for Europe. It gives industry adequate time to adapt, to benefit from first-mover advantage, and to avoid carbon lock-in, while stemming the continued damage to the climate that further delay would bring.

At the same time, the huge investment that these goals require are just what Europe needs right now to overcome the economic crisis brought about by the covid-19 pandemic. Just as, in the longer term, frontloading this investment is what Europe needs for our longer-term project.

Much of this investment will come from the private sector, but public funds are needed to support the necessary innovation towards clean technologies; to ensure solidarity towards all those who are less able to manage the transition on their own; and to help citizens and administrations adapt to the disruption that climate change will continue to bring before we can win this fight. The EU is already taking the steps to secure the financial means. The European Parliament and member states reached agreement on an improved EU budget for 2021-2027 and on an extraordinary recovery instrument, NextGenerationEU. This package of more than €1.8 trillion would enable the EU to tackle both today’s crisis and tomorrow’s challenges. Thirty per cent of all EU funds, and 37 per cent of the €672.5 billion of new grants and loans from NextGenerationEU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility, will be dedicated to fighting climate change. The “twin transitions” (green and digital) will also be at the heart of NextGenerationEU. Member states will invest in green jobs and sustainable economic growth. These funds will finance clean technologies such as hydrogen, boost the share of renewables in the energy mix, improve the energy efficiency of buildings supporting the Renovation Wave, and accelerate the rollout of sustainable green transport and infrastructure. The Just Transition Mechanism will mobilise over €100 billion of public and private investment to support those regions most vulnerable to potential negative socio-economic impacts of the transition.

The EU will also revise its entire climate and energy framework, to have in place the laws and measures we require to match our ambitions. Public consultations on revising the EU Emissions Trading System Directive, the Effort Sharing Regulation, the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry Regulation, and the Regulation governing carbon dioxide standards for light-duty vehicles were launched in November 2020, with a view to proposing a full legislative package by June 2021. Carbon pricing, under the Emissions Trading System, currently covering power and industry, could extend to other parts of the economy. The capacity of Europe’s land and forests to sequester carbon from the atmosphere must be strengthened: planting trees, better (and more efficient) farming practices, rewetting wetlands, and promoting greater use of wood products in construction and other sectors. Higher CO2 emissions standards are to be set for the cars and vans on European roads.

Yet, we know our good intentions for a green recovery in Europe will not be enough if we fail to convince others to join us. Not only must we in Europe press ahead with our own ambitious plans for a green transition, but we must bring international partners on board too. Already, the ranks of the “net-zero club” are growing. Japan has followed the EU and has adopted the 2050 climate neutrality goal, and others aim to achieve at least net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050 (South Africa and South Korea) or 2060 (China). Canada announced a new law on climate neutrality and Joe Biden has indicated that the United States will move in the same direction. Five years on, there is finally a sense of a global momentum emerging, towards keeping the promise of the Paris Agreement and securing our future on this planet.

Mauro Petriccione is director general for Climate Action at the European Commission.

While the references to legislative acts and policy documents are accurate, the views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Commission.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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