EU cannot be lonely leader on climate
China can be perfect partner for European Union’s ambitions to strengthen worldwide efforts to tackle global warming
The Paris climate accord reached in the French capital in 2015 was made possible by the urgency and political necessity felt by the global community. To maintain the credibility of international climate action and the integrity of the Paris Agreement, firm implementation and concrete emission reductions are needed now. This massive task can only be successful if major economies, strong political forces and persistent voices work together to counter populists, egoists and climate deniers and prove that a common effort within a functioning United Nations framework can deliver results. Europe cannot be a lonely leader. It needs strong and determined allies around the globe — China being the most important one.
This year’s UN climate summit in Katowice, Poland, will be a moment of truth. As well as having the (uneasy) task of agreeing on a rulebook for implementing the Paris Agreement, the parties will also take stock of the pledges made so far. Demonstrating actual progress as well as political responsibility and assurance toward the Paris process will be a third, and equally important, challenge. In Poland, the global community needs to see the birth of a coalition for strong and rapid implementation of the climate agreement. The joint EU-China “Leaders’ Statement on Climate Change and Clean Energy” from July 2018 must be the first building block of this coalition.
Climate action became the central theme of the EU-China meeting in Beijing this year. The joint statement underlines the importance and value of the multilateral system. Its message is extremely valuable at a time when climate action needs another push at UN level. The two economies, China and the EU, have committed to action before 2020, and to advance the process of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. With political disagreements in other areas, it is strategically important to focus on common objectives and ideas like the fight against climate change and the promotion of clean energy technologies. The leaders’ recognition of the importance of developing free trade and investment in this context is quite remarkable in a year dominated by trade wars and the rhetoric of partition.
Besides the political impact of the EU-China statement, its effectiveness will be proved by concrete actions and pledges. With the special 1.5 degree Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report expected this autumn, and the conclusion of the Talanoa Dialogue on climate in Katowice, pressure will mount on world leaders to increase efforts to effectively limit global warming. In this regard, the announced cooperation in specific fields, such as emission trading, clean energy technologies, zero-emission vehicles and low-carbon cities, has underlined the EU’s and China’s approach to seeking growth potentials and synergies, fostering exchanges of experience and knowledge, and promoting the development of technologies and concepts together.
With the UN climate summit in Poland just a few months away, the EU as host will be an important negotiating party. The EU does not want to go to Katowice emptyhanded. The first draft of its long-term zero emissions strategy is expected in November 2018, and an increased 2030 target is under discussion. During the past two years, EU legislators have agreed on major climate and energy laws, enabling Europe to increase its climate pledge for 2030. At the upcoming summit, a push for more ambition in climate action is desperately needed. An increased EU pledge could be a promising and politically important message, encouraging other members of the UN climate convention to take further action to reduce CO2.
While the EU will probably overachieve on its pledge to cut emissions by 40 percent until 2030 compared with 1990 levels, accelerated climate change provides an impetus for EU member states to agree on more ambitious targets for 2030, as well as for 2050. Critics have warned before that the current contribution is actually not in line with the objectives of the Paris Agreement.
Recent reforms of almost all major climate laws allow the EU to aim for a higher target. While emissions from sectors falling under the Emission Trading Scheme have decreased faster than expected, the EU carbon price basically doubled when the reform passed both EU legislative chambers this year. Agreeing on a legislative package to form a European Energy Union in June 2018 was another big step toward decarbonizing the European economy. In particular, the European Parliament pushed for higher targets for the deployment of renewable energies and enhanced energy savings. After difficult negotiations, the new laws foresee that in 2030, energy consumption should be made up of 32 percent renewables, instead of the 27 percent envisaged by heads of state in 2014. Energy consumption should be 32.5 percent less in 2030 compared with business as usual, whereas the initial proposal foresaw a reduction of only 27 to 30 percent.
Besides plans for the energy sector, a better balance is being pursued between emissions from agriculture or other land use and carbon removal by forests, wetlands and grassland. More focus will be put on the EU’s transportation sector in coming years. Environmental politicians in the European Parliament are demanding a significant switch toward low- and zero-emission vehicles in current negotiations for new CO2 standards.
These developments seem to be evidence of a higher climate ambition. EU Climate Commissioner Arias Canete wants to propose that EU governments increase the EU 2030 target from 40 of 45 percent, based on the new energy laws, and to reach this agreement before the summit. Several member states, such as Sweden and the Netherlands, have even asked for a 55 percent reduction compared with 1990 levels. A higher EU 2030 target will certainly help ease pressure for the period between 2030 and 2050 and set the EU’s industry and economy on the right track.
While all states have been asked — by 2020 — to review and scale up the climate targets they submitted in 2015 under the Paris Agreement, the EU’s more ambitious targets could provide an important impetus for this process. However, attention also needs to be drawn to the long-term perspective toward midcentury. The 2050 low-carbon strategies are due in 2020 and request all states to develop concepts to reduce emissions in all major economic fields. Being a strong economy and the third-biggest emitter in the world, the EU should aim to become climate-neutral by 2050 at the latest. A 2050 roadmap is a real opportunity to lay down economic, technological and industry priorities as well. The 2050 plan needs to become the EU’s master plan for the future. In their Leaders’ Statement, the EU and China have committed to cooperate on the formulation of the midcentury strategies through regular technical dialogues. Both sides will exchange ideas for their future economies and societies.
Politically, it is extremely important to show that two of the world’s biggest economies are on board, as a counterbalance to the rhetoric of US President Donald Trump and other climate deniers. The EU and China should widen their climate coalition and seek allies on all continents, taking the opportunity to strengthen the axis between European and Asian countries on climate action. The EU seems to be ready to step up its own actions. To make a forceful impact, however, it cannot be a lonely leader. Allies are invited to share global climate leadership. China can be a perfect partner.