Climate Change

Draft EU Climate Law: Incomplete framework, poor on internationalism

Climate activist Greta Thunberg termed the proposed EU law’s 2050 net-zero target a ‘surrender’

By Kapil Subramanian
Published: Friday 06 March 2020

This is the second in a two-part series on whether the new EU climate law's framework is adequate to ensure climate targets are met.

As the first part of this series showed, the new European Union (EU) climate law proposed by the European Commission (EC) sets mitigation targets way off track from what science says it should be doing to combat catastrophic climate change.

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.

Denmark’s climate law, for example, requires the climate minister to face an annual grilling before Parliament.

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. Such assessments could have significant impact if used effectively.

It must, however, be ensured that the provision is not reduced to a mere box-ticking exercise.

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.

As the EC notes, 93 per cent of EU citizens consider climate change a serious problem, which should enable governments to take transformative climate action.

In such a scenario however, while outright climate denial may be politically unacceptable, climate scepticism is expressing itself in new ways.

This acknowledges the reality of climate change but understates the scale of necessary action. The new law’s unambitious 2050 net-zero target is a reflection of such trends.

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.

Examples include the recent mantras of net-zero by 2050, ‘nature-based Solutions’ and ‘non-state action’ (aka action by ‘cities, states and businesses’).

These are all part of the British Conference of Parties (CoP) presidency’s crucial 26th CoP to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Glasgow Action Plan).

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.

In contrast, Denmark’s new climate law not only commits to meeting international obligations, but also requires the government to report emissions not just from production but also from consumption and imports.

It further requires the government to prepare an annual global strategy to ensure that the government’s foreign, trade and international development initiatives all contribute to Denmark’s leadership on climate action.

The EU law also fails to establish an independent commission on climate change, similar to France’s Haut Conseil pour le Climat (HCC), the UK’s Committee on Climate Change and Denmark’s Climate Council.

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.

As the economist and former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis recently wrote, emergencies reveal priorities.

While €4.2 trillion was quickly found to serve the interests of ‘Big Finance’ during the post-2009 financial crisis, only €1 trillion (over ten years) was committed for the Green Deal to combat mankind’s gravest crisis.

The Green Deal and the climate 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.

Growing anxiety over climate change may be revivifying the European left, as the historian Adam Tooze argued.

But “given humanity’s mutual entanglement”, it is a political necessity that the left build “a platform of credible internationalism and solidarity” in formulating its climate plans, according to Tooze.

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