Hope is the last to die, and the Paris Agreement created plenty of it. For the last four years, since COP21 in France, world nations have consoled themselves that the gulf between their intentions and the globally agreed target to limit warming to well below 2˚C was a temporary accounting challenge. To close the gap, a crank or ‘ratchet mechanism’ was added to the Paris Agreement in 2015, intended to tighten national commitments and deepen emission cuts every five years.
Yet, unsurprisingly, the gulf has continued to grow. Emissions have continued to rise and global temperature has exceeded 1˚C of warming. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that 1.5˚C was actually a more realistic threshold for reducing catastrophic effects of climate change, and so the gulf grew further. At this year’s failed UN COP in Madrid, nations realised that the crank handle had never been installed properly. Only Suriname and the Marshall Islands had ever got it working. Bullish Brazil, US, Saudi Arabia and Australia suggested spinning it the other way altogether.
Amid the mayhem – and pressured by millions of gravely concerned citizens – the EU replaced the crank with a hard 2050 deadline for carbon neutrality on 11 December. It is calling it the European Green Deal (distinct from the US Green New Deal manifesto which also has a 2050 carbon neutrality target) seeking to address the nine per cent of global emissions originating from the European continent.
All EU member states, bar a coal-rich Poland, were shoehorned into an agreement by the EU Commission to emitting no more greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century than could be absorbed by nature. The promise-later, act-later Paris Agreement was updated to a promise-now, act-later agreement Green Deal across the continent. Embodied in that European promise by some of the world’s richest countries (and those most historically responsible for creating warming) was an understanding that 3˚C of global warming was now the best humanity could hope for.
EUROPE’S GREEN DEAL
The Green Deal, much like the Paris Agreement, has some attention grabbing headlines. On the road to 2050 net zero emissions, member states will need to submit revised energy plans (responsible for 75 per cent of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions) by the end of 2019. The power sector will be based predominantly on renewables with the rapid phase out of coal and the decarbonisation of gas production. Biomass and nuclear will not initially be ruled out of the energy mix.
A ‘substantial’ part of inland freight will be transferred to rail, and one million charging points will be needed for an expected 25 million low- or zero-emission vehicles expected on the road by 2025. The EU Emission Trading System (ETS) may be extended to shipping, with possible reductions of currently free allowances being offered to the aviation sector. Afforestation (the process of planting trees) will be required to help sequester more carbon.
A proposed 25 per cent of budget for all current EU programmes will be directed to climate mitigation efforts. At least 40 per cent of the Common Agricultural Policy’s overall budget, and at least 30 per cent of the Maritime Fisheries Fund are to contribute. Twenty per cent of profits from the ETS could be allocated to mitigation. A conservative estimate of an additional €260billion of annual investment (about 1.5 per cent of 2018 GDP) will be required for implementation of the Green Deal. It is expected to be signed into law in March 2020.
TOO LITTLE TOO LATE
The most serious flaw in the Green Deal carbon neutrality plan for 2050 is that it is not a plan for 2030. Radical action is needed in the coming decade; without which any action in the 2030 to 2050 window becomes almost irrelevant. Climate Action Tracker (CAT), an online platform that measures countries (or in this case the EU bloc’s) climate commitments against the Paris Agreement, told Geographical it still rates the EU’s emission reduction promises as ‘Insufficient’. Global warming would still reach over 2˚C and up to 3˚C even if all nations made the same effort as the EU. ‘The European Green Deal,’ CAT explains, ‘will not have a direct impact on the EU’s “insufficient” score.’
CAT rates countries’ emissions reduction pledges for 2030, taking into account their level of development and capacity to reduce emissions. The EU has not yet revamped its current 40 per cent emission reduction by 2030 target, although it has currently managed to reduce emissions by 23 per cent from the 1990 baseline year to 2018. By summer 2020, the EU Commission intends to increase this to between 50 to 55 per cent, promising more than a doubling of emissions reductions in little more than a third of the timeframe. Such deep cuts would still be incompatible with the Paris Agreement, according to CAT.
Moreover, these are still only promises. The European Commission worked hard in the final days to bring the Czech Republic and Hungary to the agreement. Poland, a nation that relies on coal, the most polluting of fossil fuels, to meet approximately 80 per cent of its domestic electricity demand, remained outside. Other capitulating EU member states may have been more savvy, knowing a broken promise – as we are seeing now with the Paris Agreement – is easier that putting up an international fight.
ENDLESS GROWTH ON A FINITE PLANET
‘If we continue to live like this we will need four Earths,’ said Frans Timmermans to the European Parliament on 5 December. Timmermans is the EU Commissions’ vice president. ‘This is a paradigm shift,’ he added, ‘and as soon as everybody understands this we can take the right measures to be where we need to be.’ Timmermans was also the front man for the Green Deal at COP25.
Yet the wording itself of the Green Deal is steeped in the language of unending growth and opportunity that many civil actors at the UN climate conference believe is the conflict at the heart of the climate emergency. Protecting, restoring and reforesting ecosystems is couched in terms of the ‘value’ these resources could provide in the EU proposal. Creation of jobs in a greener, circular economy will be prioritised with the plan’s premise to turn an ‘urgent challenge into a unique opportunity’.
Between 1990 and 2018, the EU economy grew by 61 per cent as emissions decreased by 23 per cent. Yet with the global population rising and just-demands for increasing standards of living emerging from the global south, Timmermans warning about the Earth being beyond capacity jars with the Green Deal’s proposal of growth as usual being compatible with fighting climate change.
‘Simply by promoting economic growth,’ warns the European Environment Agency in its State and Outlook 2020 document, while ‘seeking to manage harmful side-effects with environmental and social policy tools,’ will not allow the continent to achieve its ‘sustainability vision of living well within the limits of the planet.’
BEYOND BREXIT AND A UNITED EU
The UK will not be held to the emission reduction targets of the Green Deal when it leaves the European Union. It will however still be a member of the Paris Agreement. COP26 climate talks will be held in Glasgow in November 2020 with a gargantuan task of cranking up commitments to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions facing the Scottish hosts.
‘The UK’s exit from the European Union categorically spells bad news for environmental protections in our country,’ Green MEP Alexandra Phillips told Geographical. ‘As we leave the EU, and protectionary legislation is removed, this Conservative government looks very unlikely to be inclined to introduce anything as ambitious or comprehensive to replace it.’ An updated EU Withdrawal Bill this week will reveal the extent of the prime minister’s adherence to these safeguards.
‘The European Union’s “green deal” set the bar at this year’s COP,’ Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25) policy writer David Adler told Geographical. ‘Unfortunately,’ he adds, ‘it set the bar quite low.’ Adler cites lack of EU ambition to transfer technology to assist climate action beyond Europe, as well as weak emission reduction targets given the continent’s wealth, historical greenhouse gas responsibility and its robust institutions that could enact deeper cutting change.
Hope was measured out in generous lengths by the Paris Agreement at COP21 in 2015. Yet at COP25 the actions of shrewd negotiators stringing out promises without any real intention at emission reductions was exposed. The Green Deal, at least in its current construction, is little more than another clever piece of carbon accounting presenting insufficient measures for the radical changes needed.
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