EU COP24 commitments: more needs to be done to align action and policy with climate science
by Luca Bergamaschi
December 20, 2018
As the dust settles after the 24th UN climate conference (COP24) successfully delivered the “rulebook” of the Paris Agreement, European Commission officials head back to Brussels knowing they deliver the best possible outcome. Despite geopolitical tensions, all Governments – especially the EU and China – showed their determination to multilateral cooperation on climate. Luca Bergamaschi of climate think-tank E3G, just back from Katowice, reports from Brussels.
While finalising the rulebook is an achievement in itself given the current geopolitical environment, countries were not prepared to send a clear signal towards scaling up action in response to the stark warning from the latest scientific report on the impacts of 1.5 degree of global warming. Even within Europe there is a deepening divide between progressive Member States, such as France and The Netherlands, demanding increased efforts to cut greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions and those determined to defend the status quo, such as Germany and Poland.
To maintain its international climate leadership and credibility, especially vis-à-vis the most vulnerable countries, next year the EU will need to signal that its domestic commitments and strategy are aligned with the scientific evidence. This will be key to arrive at COP26 in 2020 with a strong European offer in the form of an increased Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC, equivalent to the EU 2030 GHG target) and a Paris-compatible long term strategy. The two key meetings to do so in 2019 will be the European Council on the Future of Europe in May 2019 in Sibiu and the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit on 23 September in New York.
What happened in Poland
Countries agreed most of the implementing rules of the Paris Agreement overcoming initial challenges posed by fossil fuels producing countries. The negotiations went in overtime but eventually they all agreed a common set of rules for preparing, monitoring, taking stock and comparing climate pledges. These rules are applicable to all countries but allow developing countries a few years more to fulfil all rules, while receiving support through capacity building. Also, the rules provide clear guidance for countries to take stock of, and subsequently enhance, their pledges every 5 years by assessing progress towards the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement and financial support (including for losses and damages caused by climate change).
Only one decision was postponed to next year. This was on the design of market mechanisms for carbon reductions (Article 6 of the Paris Agreement) that do not compromise environmental integrity, for example through double counting of emissions reductions. This will now be negotiated at a later stage as Brazil, a potentially large provider of carbon credits to the market from its large forest resources, could not agree.
While shared, universally-applicable rules are a necessary condition for international cooperation, they are no substitute for increased climate action, as current national commitments on emission reduction are not sufficient to bridge the growing emissions gap in 2030. If left unchanged, current commitments would lead on average to over 3 degree of warming by the end of the century.
At COP24 countries failed to clearly signal their intention to update their national commitments against the warnings of the IPCC report on 1.5 degree. And yet even the IPCC report might be underestimating critical climate risks. This is the message delivered by Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Director Emeritus of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, during arguably the most important side event in Katowice.
In fact, the IPCC might be depicting a too rosy picture of the earth system. Even delivering the Paris Agreement temperature targets, we might activate a cascade of “tipping elements” – the vital organs of the earth system, such as the Greenland and West Antarctica ice sheets – that would turn the world into a hothouse earth and lead to unmanageable sea level rises.
The most critical issue is the non-linearity of climate change and the synchronicity of extreme weather events around the world, which could cause a cascade of irreversible change. In light of these new findings, a key task of European policy makers – especially for the next Commission – is to better understand these risks and how to effectively respond in order to build adequate resilience and protect all Europeans especially those most exposed, such as in Southern Europe.
European diplomacy works
Reaching the agreement was a success of European diplomacy often in partnership with the most vulnerable countries. The EU played an important role as bridge-builder between countries by acknowledging the key role finance plays in enhancing emission reductions. The EU and others made sure that that greater predictability of financial support is enshrined in the rulebook which reassured developing countries and created trust among them.
Importantly, the EU alone has pledged a voluntary contribution of €10 million for the Adaptation Fund. This was an important signal of solidarity towards key European allies, especially the most vulnerable countries. The EU also brought together the High Ambition Coalition, including 12 Member States, to make a clear statement about their priorities for the rulebook, which helped putting pressure on the final hours of negotiations.
European non-state and business actors also played a key role for increasing European leadership. 45 European business, investors, cities and regions launched the initiative Step Up Now, showcasing the climate action they are undertaking already and calling on EU countries to commit to net-zero emissions by 2050 as well as to adjust the 2030 targets. This new coalition is expected to grow over the next few months in the run-up to the Future of Europe summit in May 2019. At the same time, London Mayor Khan unveiled his plan to tackle the climate emergency and become carbon neutral by 2030, the Danish Maersk – the world’s largest container shipping company – is the first global shipping company to set itself a target of becoming CO2 neutral by 2050 and Volkswagen committed to roll out its last petrol and diesel model in 2026.
Unsurprisingly, coal received special attention throughout the whole conference. Three thousand people marching in Katowice asked the same thing as global investors managing $32 trillion worth of assets: a quicker exit from coal. Progressive Polish Mayors issued a declaration in favour of climate policies and major new actors joined the Powering Past Coal Alliance – the first global alliance working to advance to transition away from unabated coal – including Scotland whose wind power broke the 100% output for the first time in December. And Greta Thunberg, a young Swedish teenager who inspired school strikes to protest against climate inacation all around the world, was the rising star both inside and outside the conference.
Aligning financial flows with the Paris Agreement is proving instead more challenging. While the European Bank for Regional Development (EBRD) committed to phasing out direct coal financing, it is failing to tackle its significant investments in gas infrastructure. The positions of the EU Council and the Parliament on the next EU budget do not yet signal a clear trend away from fossil fuel investment. The biggest risks of new gas investment are ending up as stranded assets or locking in emissions.
Opportunities in 2019
At the latest European Council (13-14 December), European Heads of State confirmed that Member States will respond to the recently published long-term strategy presented by the European Commission in more detail in the first half of 2019. This will be the first opportunity for aligning the EU long term strategy to climate science, in particular to 1.5 degree, and responding to increasing demand from the majority of businesses and citizens for enhanced climate action. This will require to set a target of net-zero GHG emissions by 2050 at the latest. Ideally, Heads of State will also discuss what this means for 2030 targets. New analysis shows that reaching net-zero by 2050 requires raising the 2030 ambition level to 55-65%.
In the run-up to the Future of Europe Summit, governments could use the next months to find consensus towards a net-zero emissions goal by 2050 and new 2030 GHG target (which corresponds to the European NDC) through discussing what this means for industry competitiveness, finance, infrastructure, social policies and innovation. The recently published report presented at COP24 by the EU Commission’s DG Research and Innovation on decarbonisation pathways could support this effort. Its recommendations include:
- the need for sustained Research and Innovation activities on decarbonisation across all sectors, including a robust programme on climate change science;
- the establishment of large mission-oriented programmes of a cross-cutting nature for the deployment of system-level transdisciplinary innovation;
- the development of partnerships with industry to address together the most difficult aspects of decarbonisation, on which industry alone would not invest enough and with the necessary urgency;
- and the launch of Transition Super-Labs, very-large-territory initiatives of real-life management of the transition from typical fossil-fuel-based local economies to zero-carbon ones.
This discussion and the agreement for an ambitious, long term climate-neutral target would allow the EU, and the current European Commission, to respond to the shortcoming of COP24 and use the Sibiu Summit to define its legacy on the Paris Agreement, ensuring that climate change will be a high priority for the next European Commission. This will of course depend on the formation of the next European Parliament. The political discussion on climate change during the electoral campaign will also be key to shape how Heads of State will respond to it in May.
“from now on, my five priorities will be: Ambition in mitigation. Ambition in adaptation. Ambition in finance. Ambition in technical cooperation and capacity building. Ambition in technological innovation” UNSG, Antonio Guterres
If Heads of State can provide guidance on the long term strategy while committing to a higher European NDC, this would allow for a concerted diplomatic effort for higher ambition with China and Canada to be agreed at the next Ministerial on Climate Action (date to be determined but presumably in the first quarter of 2019). This would inject much needed global leadership and prepare higher pledges to be announced at the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit on 23 September in New York. This will be the most important international meeting on climate change during 2019 where countries are invited to make new national commitments – the missing element of COP24. In the words of UNSG Antonio Guterres, “from now on, my five priorities will be: Ambition in mitigation. Ambition in adaptation. Ambition in finance. Ambition in technical cooperation and capacity building. Ambition in technological innovation”.
A lot of work needs to be done to overcome the current divide inside Europe between progressive and less progressive Member States. The upcoming recommendations of the new Coal Commission in Germany could trigger a rethink and a repositioning of Germany, opening up the possibility of increasing the 2030 GHG target and organise more pressure on Central and Easter European countries, in particular on Poland. It will require a strategic offer to persuade them to move towards accepting higher targets by 2030. The next six months are therefore key to achieve this.
After COP24 the focus shifts to domestic processes and partnerships to keep the promise of the Paris Agreement alive through enhanced climate efforts. The EU is now expected to act as the global pacesetter on increasing NDCs ahead of the 2020 deadline. The EU can count on the support of a broad set of governmental, non-state and business actors. They provide the basis for discussing the range of actions needed to increase ambitions and in doing so to keep a chance of avoiding the most dangerous levels of climate change.
Luca Bergamaschi is Senior Associate on climate and energy diplomacy at climate think-tank E3G