Climate Change

Climate Emergency CoP 25: Europe’s Kafkaesque progress on climate action

The European Green New Deal is a pale imitation of the American original

By Kapil Subramanian
Published: Friday 13 December 2019
Photo: @EU_Commission / Twitter

Great progress has been made. From calls to build a vision for net zero emissions by 2050 in last November’s 2050 long term strategy to striving for “climate-neutrality” by the same year in the recently-announced Green New Deal, the European Commission has come a long way.

The next step it recommends is a climate law which it will propose in March 2020, to be followed by passage in the fractured European Union (EU) Parliament. By the summer of 2020, the Commission will present an assessment of the impact of increasing the EU’s greenhouse gas reduction target from 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030 to 50 per cent and “towards 55 per cent” in a “responsible way”.

To deliver these additional greenhouse gas emissions reductions, the Commission will, by June 2021, review and propose to revise where necessary, all relevant climate-related policy instruments.

Coming at a time when its own Parliament has declared a climate emergency, and called for a 55 per cent emissions reduction target, Europe’s progress over the past year is reminiscent of British prime minister Boris Johnson’s (mostly fictitious) accounts of Europe’s bureaucratic excess written while he was the Brussels correspondent of the Daily Telegraph.

In contrast, the UK’s official Committee on Climate Change published its assessment of the net zero target in May, which was followed on June 12 with a four-word amendment to the country’s Climate Change Act (2008), making Britain the first country in the G7 to enshrine the net zero target in law.

That speed no doubt reflects the ease of national, rather than multinational action, as well as Britain’s historical advantages which have enabled easy emission mitigation.

Nevertheless, any analysis of the Green New Deal must acknowledge how little Europe has moved in the year since the European Commission unveiled its 2050 long term strategy. The strategy has failed in its promise of leading to the adoption of a net zero target despite the months-long painstaking negotiations which followed.

Moreover, the European Environment Agency reported last week that the EU was not even on track to meet its current Paris targets and is only likely to hit a 30 per cent emission cut by 2030.

The Green New Deal is largely a reiteration of last year’s statement of intent. Despite implying some degree of political consensus among the EU member states (who each contribute one member to the Commission), both documents are mere Communications which need new laws or European Commission Directives to take effect. Offering ever lesser detail than last year's communication, the Green New Deal reads like a hack job hastily prepared to be released during the Conference of Parties (CoP) at Madrid.

The European Commission President has described the deal as “Europe's man on the moon moment”. What it amounts to at most is President Kennedy's speech in 1963 declaring that America would put a man on the moon “before the decade is out”.

Even as a statement of intent, the EU’s Green New Deal falls far short of versions in America, where the term has acquired great currency despite being likely invented in Britain in 2008. While there have been several versions of a Green New Deal since Congresswoman Alexandria Occasio-Cortez moved a resolution with that title, Bernie Sanders’ plan calls for complete decarbonisation of the transport and power sectors by 2030.

Even if other sectors saw no movement, this would mean a reduction in the United States (US) emissions by at least 50 per cent over 1990 levels. There will be mitigation additional to this; formerly-Republican-currently-Democrat Michael Bloomberg’s highly optimistic plan estimates that US emissions can fall by as much as 37 per cent between 2005 and 2030 even in the face complete federal inaction.

Europe as a whole, once used to be a more progressive force on climate change than American left-liberals, but the European Green New Deal is a pale imitation of the American original.

Besides not matching up to similar statements of intent in the US, the Green New Deal also fails to adequately contribute to limiting the global mean temperature rise. Europe’s fair share of the global mitigation burden to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (°C) would imply a net-zero target closer to 2030.

Even the Green New Deal's best case scenario of a 55 per cent emissions cut by 2030 is not compatible with a 2°C temperature rise, according to the Climate Action Tracker, a collaborative effort between Climate Analytics and the New Climate Institute, both based in Germany.

Like member state Denmark’s new climate law passed last week, the Green New Deal’s 2050 target, has been worded as “climate neutrality” rather than as net zero carbon emissions, though the new phrase has not been defined in the Communication. A strategy brochure released by the Commission earlier this year indicated that the reference is to net zero greenhouse gas emissions, rather than net zero carbon emissions.

If that is indeed the case, it marks a genuine increase in ambition (however meagre) over the EU’s existing long-term goal of cutting 2050 emissions by 80-95 per cent over 1990 levels, unlike the net zero carbon laws of the UK, France and New Zealand.

But the Green New Deal is silent on the crucial question of whether carbon credits will be used to meet the climate neutrality target, as allowed by the UK law in contravention of the advice of its own official Committee on Climate Change. Five of the seven pathways to 2050 studied by the Commission will result in an emission reduction of just about 80 per cent (the lower end of the EU’s current target), while a sixth achieves 90 per cent by combining the efforts of the five.

A seventh pathway achieves 100 per cent using Bio Energy Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), while an eight one does so by relying on the circular economy, less carbon intensive consumer choices as well as expanding land use sinks.

But as the brochure acknowledges, carbon capture and storage (CCS) has “low social acceptability”. Globally, while the present installed BECCS capacity is less than 0.03 per cent of current EU emissions, most IPCC pathways to limit warming to 1.5°C require some degree of BECCS, particularly for achieving the net negative emissions required in the post-2050 period.

Nevertheless, the IPCC has pointed out that this will be very hard to achieve given current technologies, making it clear that the pathways remained aspirational and that its special report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (2018) had found no reason to shed the skepticism of its Fifth Assessment Report (2014).

To the European Commission, combined with “sustainable biomass”, CCS can help attain negative emissions. But “sustainable biomass” is a controversial concept.

Despite the much heralded boom in wind and solar, biomass accounted for 8.8 per cent of the continent's primary energy supply in 2016, while the total share of all other renewables was just 4.8 per cent.

Like elsewhere in the world, sustainably-sourced biomass is considered carbon neutral under EU regulations, based on the argument that the carbon dioxide released will be recaptured by next year’s biofuel crop (though there will be some emissions of non-CO2 greenhouse gases). However, not all biomass is sustainable and biomass production may lead to rising emissions from land use change due to deforestation, as well as from the increasing use of fossil fuels in biomass production.

Noting that more biomass will be needed in a zero-emissions economy, the Commission emphasises its sustainability, "to ensure that the EU's forest sink and other ecosystem services do not decline". The same courtesy is not extended to the rest of the world from which the EU imports much of its biofuels.

For example, the EU is a leading importer of Indonesia’s palm oil (for synthesising biodiesel) whose production is fueling massive deforestation. Its demand for wood chips to feed its power plants are pushing forests in the US to their breaking point. A de-colonial Green New Deal, which many have called for, would require Europe to give up its colonial ghost acres.

Thus, while the Commission terms biomass a “no regret option”, its policy on biomass as well as BECCS must go beyond merely addressing “public concerns”.

It is unclear precisely what the circular economy in the eighth pathway refers to. But the Commission’s attitude is clear in its near exclusive emphasis on recovery and recycling of “critical raw materials” like rare earths imported from abroad where “new dependencies might emerge”. Its emphasis on the circular economy is largely about European competitiveness rather than climate action.

A key weakness of the Green New Deal is betrayed in its observation that primary raw materials will continue to form the lion’s share of consumption given the scale of demand growth. However, it is important to recognise that the growth in consumption is overwhelming the growth in carbon efficiency of production; a key example in the European context would be transport.

Moreover, as consumption has continued to rise despite deindustrialisation across the EU, this has merely meant outsourcing of emissions through imports, to the extent of nearly a fifth. Europe cannot take consumption as an extraneous factor unamenable to climate policy. Indeed, reducing consumption needs to part of the global mitigation agenda.

The Green New Deal’s approach to dealing with the question of import emissions betray the EU's origins as a mere trade bloc. To compensate for the loss in industrial competitiveness as a result of its seemingly progressive climate policy, a new carbon border tax (proclaimed World Trade Organization-compliant) is proposed. Besides penalising the developing countries the EU imports from, such a tax can at best address inefficiencies in industrial production abroad, while neglecting entirely the emissions due to increased consumption, of which inefficiency (if any) is a just a small percentage.

This border tax more or less constitutes the entirety of the Green New Deal’s poor foreign policy vision. In contrast, Denmark’s world-leading climate law passed last week, makes a commitment to deliver on international agreements including climate finance to developing countries.

It requires the government to not only report on domestic emissions but also emissions from imports and consumption and further prescribes an annual global strategy to ensure that the government’s foreign, development and trade initiatives contribute to Denmark’s place as a driver of global climate policy.

Innovation is a key theme in the Green New Deal document, perhaps in large part due to the efforts of one of its advisers, Mariana Mazzucato, who teaches innovation policy at University College, London, and is best known for her book The Entrepreneurial State, which powerfully argues that through innovation, the state has been a key driver of the economy in the past and can do so again in the future. 

In a policy brief on the Green New Deal published last year, she argued that the concepts of ‘market failures’, ‘negative externalities’, and ‘public goods’ are unable to capture the dynamic characteristics of a green transition, which demanded a broader vision.

In its strategy brochure, the European Commission put innovation at the top of its list of the four actions required for a green transition. But this was quickly followed in the list by the need to spur private investments and to send the “right signals” to markets. Far from being an innovative game changer, the Green New Deal promises to be old (Common Market) wine in a new bottle labelled “Ever Closer Union”.

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