EU split on climate change measures
Aligning the competing interests of European countries remains a tough challenge
The European Union's drive to attain carbon neutrality by 2050 is routinely acknowledged by the continent's energy companies when discussing their long-term strategies. But the political process through which that goal needs to be achieved is being disrupted by factional fighting that has thus far blocked agreements on binding targets.
In November 2018, the European Commission published A Clean Planet for All, a long-term strategy document, which said "immediate and decisive climate action" was essential. It reiterated that the EU would need to be carbon neutral by 2050, as part of efforts to meet the Paris climate change accord's objective of keeping global warming "well below" 2°C above pre-industrial levels, while trying to limit it to 1.5°C, if possible.
Climate neutrality implies that the EU would need to achieve annual zero net man-made greenhouse gas emissions. This would require either balancing carbon emissions against measures to remove carbon from the atmosphere, or eliminating carbon emissions altogether.
"The status quo is not an option," the Commission said. "Countries should act together to protect their citizens against climate change. Delivering on the transformation towards a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions economy thus requires early long-term planning, improving knowledge of the opportunities for transforming our entire economy and building trust within our society and all economic actors that this change is possible and opportune."
However, the commission's strategy does not involve legislation or a firm commitment to achieving climate neutrality by 2050, notes David Robinson, an energy and climate change policy expert at Oxford Institute for Energy Studies (OIES).
At a meeting of the European Council — the bloc's political strategy forum — at the end of March, leaders confirmed that the EU should submit an ambitious long-term strategy for climate by 2020, with the objective being to "strive for climate neutrality, while preserving specificities of the EU countries and the competitiveness of European industry". But that meeting also achieved little in terms of agreeing a firm date for such measures to be implemented.
"There are definitely divisions within the Council, with some countries being very supportive of the European Commission proposals, such as the Netherlands, Sweden, France, Denmark, Luxembourg, Spain, Slovenia, Portugal and Finland. These push for an ambitious 2050 long-term target," says Klaus Rohrig, EU climate and energy policy co-ordinator at Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe.
But others, including Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria — mainly countries with an economic dependence on coal or heavy industry — are more hesitant and do not even support targets already agreed by the bloc, Rohrig adds.
40pc — EU goal for greenhouse gas emissions cut from 1990
In Spain, the government "sees benefits from more aggressive climate action, partly due to the potential for reduced importation of fossil fuels and because Spain has excellent solar, wind and other renewable resources," says OIES's Robinson. "Poland will want to move slowly, especially because of its heavy reliance on domestic coal and not wanting to depend on Russian gas as an alternative."
Europe's largest economy, Germany, is also facing divisions on climate change at the national level. While the country has invested heavily in solar and wind energy, the decision to wind down coal and nuclear power programmes is leading to a rise in the use of natural gas in power stations, and, while it is cleaner than coal, gas is still a carbon emitter.
It may prove difficult to displace gas in the power mix. "Industrial lobbies relying heavily on fossil fuels, especially natural gas, have a powerful influence on government policy in Germany," says Robinson.
Nevertheless, European governments are coming under increasing public pressure to adopt a more decisive stance on climate change. Climate change protests are spreading, notably a wave of headline-grabbing "strikes" being organised by schoolchildren across Europe and beyond, calling for tougher anti-global warming measures, while central London was disrupted by protests in April.
"We were not expecting countries to agree a firm date for carbon neutrality at the European Council meeting in March, but we definitely hope for an agreement at a scheduled meeting in June," Rohrig says. That would toughen up the EU position ahead of a UN-organised climate change summit to be held in New York in September.
The EU looks set to achieve its shorter-term goal of achieving a 40pc reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2030, and may actually achieve a 45pc cut. However, Rohrig argues that would not be sufficient to meet the longer-term goals set out in the Paris agreement. The European Parliament has called for a 55pc target for 2030 and CAN Europe is campaigning for a more ambitious 65pc emission cut.
The UN climate change panel also stressed in an October 2018 report that carbon emissions need to reduce more rapidly by 2030, if the temperature rise by 2050 is to be restricted to 1.5°C.
Robinson believes that EU states may not commit to becoming climate-neutral by 2050, but might agree on a strategy to increase European ambitions. This may be reflected in their long-term national strategies.
"Apart from reducing emissions more than originally planned, greater climate ambition could lead to policy support for negative emission technologies, which remove warming gases from the atmosphere," he says.
These could include extensive planting of new forests or greater use of biofuel crops, which would absorb atmospheric carbon emissions while growing. However, such solutions are not without their own problems.
"Relying on negative emission technologies is controversial for two reasons. First, they may relieve pressure to reduce emissions. Second, these technologies have never worked at scale and have significant technical and economic unknowns," Robinson says.
EU states were due to submit national energy and climate plans (NECPs) to the Commission by December 2018. These provide the basis for long-term strategies negotiated between the EU and individual countries. These plans are now being assessed and the Commission will issue recommendations to countries by the end of June 2019.
Member states will then have to present final plans, which once agreed, will become binding by end-2019. However, the drafts presented so far are raising concerns in some quarters.
"Many plans are vastly incomplete and do not propose efficient measures to reach targets," says CAN's Rohrig. "The plan submitted by Romania, for example, does not include figures and concrete information, while the Polish plan has greenhouse emissions reference data that is not consistent with European environment agency's data, which is concerning."
Both countries' plans also envisage a high share for coal in the 2030 power mix, which Rohrig says is "both incompatible with the Paris Agreement, as well as costly for citizens".
The UK's attempts to leave the EU provide another element of uncertainty, heightened by the country's role as one of the bloc's leaders in terms of pushing the climate change agenda.
"The UK was mostly a force standing for a more progressive position within the European Council, so its departure is concerning from this point of view," says Rohrig.
The UK government, on its website, insists there will be no change after Brexit to its "deep commitment to domestic and international efforts to tackle climate change", as the UK's Climate Change Act is domestic legislation and will be unaffected by exiting the EU.
"Countries should act together to protect their citizens against climate change" — EC
In addition, the UK will "remain a party to international climate change agreements" and will "continue to take ambitious steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions".
The precise nature of the UK's future links to EU climate change policy will depend on talks determined by future relationship with the bloc.
The most problematic outcome would be if the UK leaves the bloc without an agreement over how it will trade with the EU in the future — the so-called "no-deal" option. That could mean the UK leaving the European emissions trading scheme (ETS) for good. The UK was suspended from the ETS in January 2019, pending the outcome of the Brexit talks.
"No deal" now looks less likely than it did earlier in 2019, following the EU's April decision to extend the deadline for the UK's departure from the bloc to 31 October 2019. A conclusion to the UK's withdrawal agreement talks would bring more certainty over future European climate change measures. It would also remove a major distraction for the EU, whose leaders have been required to focus on Brexit at the expense of other major issues, including climate change.