EU notebook: Why the math in Europe's climate deal doesn't add up for some

Is the glass half full enough? Europe’s new emission target undergoes the Greta Effect as the world reacts with celebration, disappointment, and everything in between.

By Vish Gain

(Vish Gain is a journalist based in Dublin. He is a correspondent for AML Intelligence covering the financial crimes sector in Europe and beyond.)

DUBLIN (Callaway Climate Insights) — When European Council President Charles Michel hailed Europe as the “leader of the fight against climate change” after EU lawmakers agreed on cutting net greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030, many saw it as a watershed moment in the history of Europe’s green ambitions. However, the unanimity of the celebration was short-lived.

The Gen Z face of climate change activism, teen activist Greta Thunberg punctured the bubble with a scathing tweet on the same day: “The EU’s so-called ‘55% reduction target by 2030’ has got nothing to do with a real 55% emission reduction,” citing a Medium article she wrote explaining why the deal wasn’t nearly enough to achieve the objectives set out by the Paris Agreement adopted five years ago.

Looks like Europe didn’t catch a cold when Paris sneezed after all.

Reviews of the emissions target announcement are divided though, even among the climate action community. “I am very happy to be a European these days,” said European Climate Foundation CEO Laurence Tubiana about the bloc’s commitment to climate neutrality by 2050.

“It’s no longer a climate goal, it’s a societal goal for the EU,” said Tubiana, who is often described as the architect of the Paris climate agreement.

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president who led the negotiations, declared in a similar note that the EU’s updated climate goal “puts us on a clear path towards climate neutrality in 2050.”

Responding to criticism, EU’s energy Commissioner Kadri Simson told Euractiv: “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 skepticism 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.

Glass half full

Even economists have stamped the efforts with approval, with big players such as consulting firm McKinsey estimating in a new report that although climate neutrality will eliminate six million European jobs by 2050, it will also create 11 million jobs in new sectors.

Interestingly, more than 170 business and investor CEOs recently wrote a letter to the EU urging it to raise its 2030 emissions target to at least 55% — giving it industry approval as well.

But in a debate about climate change, opinion has little value without the science to buttress it.

In Thunberg’s article, boldly headlined, “The EU is cheating with numbers — and stealing our future,” she goes on to say: “One of humanity’s greatest, present threats is the belief that real sufficient climate action is being taken, that things are being taken care of — when in fact they’re not… The time for ‘little steps in the right direction’ is long gone and yet this is — at best — exactly what our leaders are trying to achieve. … They are literally stealing our future right in front of our eyes.”

She has a point. The proposed 55% CO₂ emissions reduction target for by 2030 is nowhere near enough to be in line with the below 1.5°C. or even the “well below 2°C.” target of the Paris Agreement. A 60% or even 65% target wouldn’t be enough either, the article noted.

But there’s a bigger problem with EU leaders celebrating the glass-half-full target. Apart from being not enough, the 55% figure is also based on 1990 emission levels and not on current levels. Because emissions have reduced since 1990, the actual reduction between now and 2030 will be significantly lower — with Thunberg’s article estimating the real figure at 42%.

Furthermore, the inclusion of carbon sinks, such as forests and soil to essentially sequester carbon, has led some to criticize the authenticity of the proposed figure. Is carbon sequestration tantamount to emissions reduction? Dutch climate scientist Bert Metz claims including sinks means that the new 55% target would effectively be less than 50%.

Looks like glass-half-full isn’t enough when it was supposed to be full.

Europe’s need to lead

Ester Asin, director of WWF European Policy Office, said: “You wouldn’t water down an effective vaccine. Yet just when the EU needs a shot of strong climate action, leaders have diluted the science with politics.”

Saying that EU leaders should be shaping a socially just transition to a sustainable, zero-carbon future, Asin criticized the addition of words like “net” to reduce an already low 55% target even further.

He added that the EU must ensure the climate law includes a five-year review of the climate target, brings other policies in line with the targets, and sets up an independent expert advisory body to scrutinize EU climate plans.

“Environment ministers meeting next week have a chance to rescue some of the EU’s reputation on climate,” he said.

Europe’s responsibility to lead climate action is informed by its historical role in carbon emissions. Although the continent is home to just 10% of the global population, its share of production-based CO₂ emissions is 16%. Europe’s past as the epicenter of the industrial revolution and its financial resources also vests in it a moral responsibility to lead the climate change fight.

In her article, Thunberg argued for Europe’s duty to take on the mantle: “There can be no social justice without climate justice. And there can be no climate justice unless we acknowledge the fact that we have dumped large parts of our emissions overseas, exploiting cheap labour and poor working conditions as well as weaker environmental regulations.”

“Because not only are the ones least responsible for the climate crisis suffering its consequences the most — we are now also blaming them for our emissions, as they are the ones producing the stuff we buy,” she said.

With the U.S. set to rejoin the Paris climate accord under the presidency of Joe Biden, China set to go carbon neutral by 2060, and ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) late next year, Europe will have to test its mettle and recalibrate its targets in the years to come before it can declare itself the world’s climate champion.