EU Leaders Push to Update Climate Action Strategy, Eyeing Paris Agreement Implementation

29 March 2018

Leaders from the EU’s member states are looking to revamp their approach to slashing emissions of greenhouse gases and have asked the bloc’s executive branch to put forward an updated strategy by early next year. 

The request was made during an EU Council meeting in Brussels, Belgium, held from 22-23 March. The updated plan, leaders said, would facilitate the bloc’s continued efforts towards meeting the goals of the UN’s Paris Agreement on climate change. 

“The European Council invites the Commission to present by the first quarter of 2019 a proposal for a Strategy for long-term EU greenhouse gas emissions reduction in accordance with the Paris Agreement, taking into account the national plans,” the Council said last week

The EU has set a bloc-wide objective of slashing carbon emissions by 40 percent by the year 2030, relative to the levels seen in 1990. The European Commission proposed this objective in early 2014, prompting a legislative process and negotiations among the EU institutions before it became law. (See Bridges Weekly, 23 January 2014

It has also set out longer term objectives, such as a 60 percent emissions cut by 2040 and a mid-century goal of 80 percent. The latter goal, according to the Commission would be achieved solely through domestic action, and was enacted under a roadmap released seven years ago. The EU has also made a commitment to be part of a wider group of developed countries that will work to cut emissions by 80-95 percent in that same timeframe. 

However, given that many of these targets predate the UN’s Paris Agreement on climate change, which was adopted in 2015 and entered into force in 2016, EU leaders and other officials have been weighing whether the bloc should reconsider these targets and, if so, when and how. 

In addition, the EU also has in place a series of energy-related targets, aimed at goals such as upping the share of renewables in the bloc’s energy mix. The EU is also working to advance a suite of laws aimed at meeting its current climate action commitments, such as by setting emissions limits for backup power subsidies, with the relevant legislation making its way through the bloc’s co-decision processes. (See Bridges Weekly, 1 March 2018

The bloc-wide climate and energy targets are meant to be paired with renewable national plans, starting with the 2021-2030 period, accounting for the different situations of individual EU member states while ensuring that the collective 2030 goals are met. A governance proposal addressing how these plans will work, along with reviews of progress in achieving them, is making its way through the EU’s legislative process. 

“EU steps up climate action as we forge ahead with the low-carbon transition. No time to lose, [the EU Commission] will deliver,” said Miguel Arias Cañete, the EU Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy, on social media site Twitter in response to the Council conclusions. 

Macron, Rutte: more ambition needed

National leaders from some EU member states have already been calling for ramping up the bloc’s climate action commitments, citing both the importance of being international leaders in this field as well as the imperative to prevent the devastation that could result from a warming planet. 

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave their own press conference following the Council meeting, with Macron publicly endorsing the Council’s call for an updated long-term strategy, along with stressing the importance of sustainable finance to meet climate action objectives. 

Macron also highlighted the importance of trade agreements in this context, reiterating past comments that the EU should avoid inking such deals with any country that is not a signatory to the climate accord, according to a transcript of his remarks provided by the Elysée Palace. 

“We cannot have trade negotiations which do not recognise the rules which we have imposed on ourselves,” he said. The European Commission issued a plan last month that put forward various steps to improve the sustainability dimension of free trade pacts, such as by ensuring that these deals “reaffirm a shared commitment to the effective implementation of the Paris Agreement.” (See Bridges Weekly, 1 March 2018

Other EU leaders have also called for more ambition in the bloc’s climate action work, with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte saying earlier this month that existing targets are far from sufficient. Rutte noted, for example, that the Paris Agreement had set an indicative target of limiting global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels, if possible, and to at least make sure that any increase stays “well below” a two degree Celsius rise. 

“This means that we need to set a more ambitious EU target. Forty percent is too low to keep warming below two degrees, let alone one and a half degrees. So we need to raise the bar,” said Rutte during a speech in Berlin at Bertelsmann Stiftung, a German foundation, in reference to the EU’s carbon reduction goal for 2030. 

The Dutch premier suggested that the EU revise this emissions reduction target further, increasing it to 55 percent within the same timeframe. 

“By adopting this target, the EU will be doing its share to get closer to the global ambition of keeping warming to one and a half degrees. So let’s not delay. The current Commission could start making preparations,” said Rutte, who also suggested that such a move could be ready for EU leaders to approve this coming June. 

The Council conclusions did not spell out what should feature in this new proposal for long-term climate action, however, and crafting EU-wide climate and energy targets has traditionally been a challenging negotiating exercise, given the varying economic make-ups of different EU member states and different levels of reliance on both traditional and newer sources of energy. 

Sustainable finance

Along with its domestic climate action plans and its focus on inking trade deals with a clear reference to climate action, the EU has also been working towards addressing a significant bloc-wide investment gap towards achieving its climate and energy objectives. Officials dedicated a high-level conference last week and an action plan released in early March towards the issue. 

Among the topics for discussion was how to leverage greater levels of investment from sources outside the public sector, along with making the EU a more desirable destination for foreign investment flows with a sustainability dimension. 

According to the European Commission, the EU faces at least an €180 billion annual shortfall when it comes to undertaking the necessary steps for meeting its 2030 targets in these policy areas – a number that could rise even further when also factoring in sectoral targets. 

“Europe’s financial sector must lead the green transition and make our union the global destination for sustainable investment. There is no greater return on investment than a healthy planet and economy,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker late last week. 

A statement from the Commission also makes specific reference to the US’ planned exit from the Paris Agreement, suggesting that this is yet one more reason for the EU to take a leadership role in this field, specifically by becoming “the destination for low-carbon technologies and sustainable investments, securing a substantial competitive advantage.” 

The EU Action Plan then outlines a series of steps aimed at making it easier for facilitating financial sector involvement, such as a standardised system for classifying sustainable investments, or looking at ways to make it easier and clearer for banks to factor in sustainability considerations in decision making. Other objectives include addressing corporate information asymmetries, such as by developing updated “guidelines on non-financial reporting” that could make it easier for companies to report on environmental and social issues, among others. 

The EU has also outlined a proposed timeframe for addressing these issues over the coming two years, some of which would require passing new legislation.

“Global investments hold the key to fighting climate change- So now is the time to ensure our investments go in the right direction. Investments made during the next years will in many cases have an effective life-span well beyond 2050,” said Cañete last week. 

“We owe it to today's and to the future generations that we do not create stranded assets, but rather put our money into projects that are compatible with our decarbonisation objectives and take into account the inevitable impacts of climate change,” the EU climate official added, stressing that public funds cannot achieve this alone. 

ICTSD reporting.

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