Much Ado about nothing
The new EU Climate Law is so unambitious in its undertaking to attain net zero green house gas emission by 2050 that it has, at best , been deemed ineffectual and at worst, a total surrender to climate sceptics and powerful business lobbies
The draft of a new European Union (EU) climate law set the unambitious target of the EU attaining net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The draft was published by the European Commission (EC) on March 4, 2020. The draft law's explanatory memorandum said the targets were consistent with "scientific findings reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)".
While the IPCC had set global goals of attaining net-zero emissions by 2050 to limit the mean temperature rise to 1.5°C, country-wise targets were outside its remit. These are subject to principles of equity and Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (CBDR-RC), which are enshrined in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 2015 Paris Agreement. While visions of what constitutes CBDR-RC are necessarily subjective, the highest level of ambition in target setting is necessary, given that 2050 global net-zero only ensures a 66 per cent chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C.
A range visions of what constituted a country's fair share — based on 40 studies referred to by the IPCC — was presented by the Climate Action Tracker (CAT).
An analysis of CAT data showed that a high level of ambition from the EU demands that it attain net-zero by 2026 to keep within the 1.5°C target and by 2029 to keep within the 2°C target. Thus the EU's 2050 net-zero target is far from keeping with what science says the EU needed to do to prevent catastrophic climate change.
According to the science, deep cuts are required within the next decade. However, the draft proposes to increase the EU's current Paris Agreement target (40 per cent cut in emissions over 1990 levels by 2030) to a mere 50 per cent. Even this would only be adopted after discussions on an EC report which is due to be published in September 2020.
As for the 55 per cent target, the September 2020 report will merely go into the question of whether the same is possible "in a responsible way".
It may be recalled that the European Parliament had proposed the 55 per cent target while declaring a 'climate emergency' during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December 2019. Even a 55 per cent emissions cut by 2030 would not be enough to bring the EU to a Paris Agreement compatible pathway, according to the CAT. The new law is not so much about climate targets, especially not about the 2030 targets which the science said were absolutely crucial.
Indeed, as German politician and EC President Ursula von der Leyen said, the law was intended to provide the tools to "draw the path" from "2030 to 2050" after finishing a "very detailed impact assessment". The specific time-frame assumes significance, considering the EU is widely off-track to meet the current Paris target of 40 per cent emissions cut by 2030.
It is only on track to a 30 per cent emissions reduction, according to a major report from the European Environment Agency. The brouhaha over the 2050 target thus merely kicks the can down the road. Much of the European public would support a higher level of ambition. The new law proposes public participation, to be carried out largely through the working of the European Climate Pact.
But on the lines of the UK Citizen's Assembly opened by David Attenborough in January, the mandate of such consultation is merely a discussion on how to achieve the 2050 net-zero target, rather than what that target should be. The law would empower the EC to set out a trajectory to 2050, with a stipulation that the same be reviewed within six months of each global stock-take under the Paris Agreement. The next stock-take would be due in 2023.
While setting out the trajectory, the commission said it would consider cost effectiveness, economic competiveness of the trade bloc, energy affordability, security of energy supply and investment needs. To these mundane considerations — central to a trade bloc's work — but not at all befitting declarations of climate emergency, the draft law admirably added "the need to ensure a just and socially fair transition" as well as "fairness and solidarity between and within member states".
In terms of international commitments, the trajectory was to merely take cognisance of international developments and the latest IPCC reports. As the explanatory memorandum noted, the EU cannot tackle climate change without action by others.
But having been responsible for over 22 per cent of global emissions since the dawn of the industrial civilisation — with just 6.8 per cent of the population — the continent's solidarity must begin with the EU doing its fair share. It is no surprise that Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg termed the proposed law's 2050 net-zero target a "surrender".
Nevertheless, the new EU climate law is about more than target-setting. 'The framework for achieving climate neutrality and amending Regulation (EU) 2018/1999 (European Climate Law)' is the operative title of the EC proposal.
Does this law provide for such a framework?
The factors which the EC is required to consider while setting out the trajectory to 2050 are inadequate to deal with the EU Parliament-declared 'climate emergency' and are more in keeping with the actions of a trade bloc, as pointed out earlier. The new law requires member-states and EU institutions to "ensure continuous progress in enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change" in keeping with Article 7 of the Paris Agreement.
The article largely focuses on adaptation in developing countries with "urgent and immediate needs".
The new law, however, makes no commitment to finance adaptation in developing countries, unlike Denmark's recently passed climate law, which is a small start.
Article 7 also requires parties to recognise that "greater levels of mitigation can reduce the need for additional adaptation efforts," which the EU law's unambitious mitigation target is in direct contravention of.
The draft law sets up mechanisms to assess progress. By 2023 — and every five years thereafter — the EC is to assess the EU's collective progress towards 2050 climate neutrality. It will also review the consistency of EU-wide measures in a report to be submitted to the European Parliament and the Council. Individual member-states will be subject to the same quinquennial assessment. If the EC is unhappy with progress, it may issue public recommendations to the concerned member.
The member will then have to respond in its next annual report to the EC with steps taken to fulfill the recommendations or with reason(s) to reject them. The draft law does not enshrine five-year carbon budgets that emissions must not exceed, unlike climate laws of Denmark, the UK and New Zealand.
In a world of political short-termism, such a provision is more important than a distant net-zero target.
Moreover, the EU has had mixed success in aligning member states with EU-wide policies on a wide range of issues, such as government deficits.
On climate, countries have faced no consequences for failing to meet their 2020 targets. The EU system may prevent coercive action on erring states. But the system can be strengthened by increasing the frequency of assessments from the proposed five years. As part of the standard assessment it provides for all laws, the EC will also include an assessment of the impact on climate neutrality strategy of any new EU law. This attempt to mainstream climate action into all legislative activity is welcome.
In another significant move, the law requires each member state to establish a multi-level 'Climate and Energy Dialogue' with local authorities, civil society organisations, businesses, investors and the general public.
In the best traditions of what is now called 'Public Engagement with Science and Technology' — which superseded the 'talking down' of the old 'Public Understanding of Science' model — it is essential that any dialogue be two-way. A mechanism must also be created to take up important public concerns for official discussion by the EC and other bodies. It is also similarly essential that all aspects of EU climate policy — including the date for attaining net-zero emissions — be open to public challenge. Businesses and investors — who in any case have disproportionate influence in national capitals and Brussels — must not be allowed to dominate the agenda.
The less climate sceptic European public may well propel the continent's political class to do better if freer rein in formal dialogue is given. The draft law specifically mentions "different scenarios envisaged for energy and climate policies" as a key topic for the dialogue. The multitudes of climate scenarios confuse even the climate professional.
This makes for another arena of play for climate sceptics in 2020, as it enables the promotion of exaggerated, inadequate, inappropriate and vested-interest solutions to the climate crisis. More specific panaceas —like wood-fired power being promoted by 'green companies' like Drax Group Plc — actually risk raising emissions and fueling deforestation outside the EU.
Better knowledge of scenario modelling can enable the public to call out green-washing and pork-barrel spending, be it by businesses, governments or EU institutions. The EU Green Deal released in December 2019 by the EC represented the 'political commitment', which the new climate law seeks to solidify into legislation.
Apart from the 2050 net-zero target, the law does not clarify any of the themes of the Green Deal. The latter had adopted a controversial approach on many issues, including a biomass-based economy, a circular economy, markets and innovation.
The Green Deal had a regressive foreign policy vision which placed at its centre, a Carbon Border Adjustment, quickly dubbed the carbon import tax. The climate law represents an improvement in not mentioning such a tax but has no foreign policy vision at all.
The EU law also fails to establish an independent commission on climate change, similar to France's Haut Conseil pour le Climat (HCC). The EC is a political body and it would be best if its role in assessments and advice is delegated (with the delegation enshrined in law) to an independent and empowered body of experts.
Given the high levels of public support for transformative climate action in the EU, the lack of ambition in the proposed new climate law can only be seen as a capitulation to a few remaining powerful climate sceptics, in addition to vested fossil fuel interests. The law must thus merely serve as a base, or indeed as a floor for member states to build upon in the process of achieving truly transformative mitigation.