Opinion - 09/July/2021

The EU Climate Law changes the net-zero equation without changing the ambition

The latest EU Climate Law lays the groundwork for significant progress in the energy transition by placing carbon removal and emissions reduction on separate pedestals, say Mark Preston and Suzana Carp from Bellona Europe

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of FORESIGHT Climate & Energy

Establishing accurate carbon budgets will help decide future policy


Just weeks after the EU Climate Law negotiations were finalised, the European Parliament saw an interesting development: the European Green Party voted against the law.

At face value, the European Climate Law offers very little in the colossal challenge to prevent climate breakdown. An automatic five-year ratcheting of ambition, in line with the requirements of the Paris Agreement, had been built into the original proposal by the European Commission but was removed by Member States who felt threatened by what they supposedly agreed to when they signed up to the 2015 climate accord.

Similarly, the requirement to have sectoral targets so that all sectors of the economy are on a steady trajectory to net-zero to ensure that the goal of carbon neutrality in the EU will be met by 2050, was also removed.

However, a small step towards outlining the contribution of carbon removals in the pathway to net-zero is both necessary and timely. The aspirational target that the EU will be “net-negative” after 2050 is a bittersweet development. On the one hand, the EU is acknowledging that it will have to go beyond simply cutting its emissions. On the other hand, the situation is so dire that cutting emissions is no longer enough.

The EU Climate Law is currently the world’s largest instrument translating the Paris Agreement into a legislative framework covering nearly a whole continent. But is it really a law? A crucial provision that would have given the EU Climate Law its legal character—the access to justice, enabling citizens to challenge the national energy and climate plans as well as the long-term strategies in court—was removed in the negotiations.

What is a law when there is no access to justice and it does not have legal consequences?

 

CARBON REMOVALS

The new EU Climate Law sets up an independent expert body and also effectively separates the accounting of land sink carbon removals from emission reductions, establishing two huge steps towards properly setting the pathway to net-zero. They are important on their own but when combined with additional elements such as the carbon budget approach, they indicate a future step change from a small role of removals up to 2030 to a big role for both accelerated reductions and removals to meet the remaining carbon budget which might suggest the EU needs to get to net-zero before 2050.

Even though the Climate Law expects a limited contribution only from nature-based removals, there is nothing to prevent the future inclusion of engineered removals. In fact, the recitals to the Climate Law mention the need for CCS-enabled methods of carbon removal, particularly in relation to the mitigation of process emissions in heavy industry.

As such, the fact that the contribution of removals to the 2030 target has been explicitly capped is a major step forward in operationalising the logic of net-zero. This tiny agreement to effectively separate carbon removals from emission reductions might have significant implications further down the line.

At the moment, the European Commission is working on how to certify carbon removals; how to know exactly how much carbon is being removed by a particular process. This is partly in response to the growing voluntary market, where polluters are increasingly seeking out opportunities to offset their emissions by purchasing removals.

The Commission’s work has raised questions about whether removals would be introduced into the emissions trading system (ETS), however they have made it clear that there is no intention to do this in the short term.

 

SEPARATE TARGETS

This burgeoning interest in purchasing carbon removal offsets highlights the need to set separate targets for the reduction of emissions and for the removal of carbon, to ensure both happen simultaneously rather than at the expense of the other. For several years, academics, experts and society have been calling for such a separation—or at a minimum, transparent distinctions between the two.

The Climate Law takes a small yet significant step in this direction, but the integrity of this de facto separation will need to be strengthened in future legislation. The establishment of an expert body which will suggest a carbon budget is another small but effective measure introduced into the law.

The carbon budget approach, while scientifically complex, will simply tally historical emissions to inform legislators about the maximum level of emissions permissible to stay within a manageable level of temperature increase (although recent events show that a warming of up to 1.5C comes with much more uncontrollable weather disasters than initially thought).

This will provide much-needed emphasis on the fact that the path we take to reach net-zero is just as important as the date we meet that target. We need to reduce emissions in the short-term as a priority. In fact, the EU’s large historical emissions and weak 2030 target, combined with the rather ambitious climate neutrality target for 2050 is likely to result in a carbon budget that is largely consumed by the mid-2030s.

The expert body and its carbon budget approach will almost definitely show that the lacklustre emission cuts targeted for this decade will result in the need for much more stringent cuts in the following decade, perhaps even bringing forward the climate neutrality target. So while many provisions with teeth and dreams for big ambitious steps towards 2030 were removed from the EU Climate Law, the seeds planted by it are bound to grow rapidly. •


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