IMAGE: Global Warming Images / WWF
Fit for 55%?
September 16, 2021
By Imke Lübbeke
Head of Climate and Energy, WWF European Policy Office
Silvija works as a cleaner in Latvia. She has two small daughters that she is bringing up alone. She manages to pay her rent and food bills, but the ends of each month are tough.
Gabriel has a restaurant in France. He gets up at 4 am daily to drive to the market and buy the fresh food he will later cook for his customers. His van is essential.
Piotr used to work in a coal mine in Poland. Now it’s closed, so he is being retrained for a local job making insulation material.
Eva is a pensioner living in Spain. In the winter, she struggles to pay her heating bills.
Sean is a farmer in Ireland. His crops haven’t been great lately due to the unpredictable weather.
Every one of us is impacted by the climate crisis in one way or another, and we will all be impacted by the action needed to tackle it. But if it’s planned and managed properly, and takes people’s lives and needs into account, climate action can offer huge changes for the better. It can and must set us on the path to a socially fair and sustainable, zero-carbon economy.
This is not a pipe dream or some vague green rhetoric. Time is pressing; the impacts of climate change are worsening - from droughts and crop failure to floods, wildfires and nature destruction. The EU has an opportunity to get this right now.
This opportunity comes because the EU recently increased its 2030 climate target, from 40% emissions reductions by 2030 to 55% net reductions (meaning carbon sequestration by forests and nature count towards it). The target increase was part of countries’ commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement to revise their climate plans every five years. And the EU Commission has just proposed a set of laws meant to turn this overall target into reality: the ‘Fit for 55%’ package.
Students from Stellendam on the beach at the estuary of the Haringvliet, the Netherlands.
IMAGE: WWF Netherlands
The EU’s new target may be higher, but it is still nowhere near enough to tackle climate change. UN figures show we need to cut emissions by 65% by 2030 in the EU (without including carbon dioxide removal) to contribute to keeping global temperature rise to 1.5°C - the limit countries agreed to under the Paris Agreement, to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
The EU’s Fit for 55% package is an opportunity to go further and usher in a fundamental systemic change, shifting towards societies which are climate-neutral and sustainable, with people, their lives and wellbeing not pushed to one side, but put at the centre.
While the EU is not the only player and cannot solve the climate problem on its own, it is one of the biggest markets in the world and it needs to lead by example through the capacities it has on finance, knowledge and institutions to trigger the necessary change.
What’s more, the EU has already set the wheels in motion with its Green Deal, which aims to achieve climate neutrality and restore nature. But the final shape of the Fit for 55% package will show whether the ambitions of the Green Deal will actually be translated into science-based actions.
One of the key issues concerns the overall structure of how the EU’s emissions reductions are divided, counted and monitored. Until now, this has been divided into three parts: emissions reductions in the power and energy-intensive sectors, which come under the EU’s carbon market (the Emissions Trading System or ETS); emissions reductions in sectors like transport, agriculture and waste, which are covered by binding national targets under a law called the ‘Effort-Sharing Regulation’; and the land use and forestry sectors (the ‘LULUCF Regulation’), which have to ensure that carbon emitted is balanced by the same amount removed from the atmosphere.
This structure has worked well until now, and should not be changed unless it follows the Commission’s proposal in the Fit for 55% package to include emissions from shipping and aviation under the ETS. This is because emissions from those sectors make up a crucial and growing part of our climate footprint.
The EU must also ensure that road transport and heating remain governed under national binding targets. The risk if they are added to an EU ETS - as the Commission has proposed – is that companies will pass the prices onto consumers, whose fuel and heating bills would go up. This would have consequences for people like Silvija, Gabriel, Piotr, Eva and Sean - on people like all of us - which may be difficult to manage and compensate for. Sectoral policies are the most effective ways to address emissions in the road, transport and buildings sectors, accompanied by carbon pricing at national level.
This is not the only thing that needs to happen under the ETS and for which the Commission’s proposals are worrying. Until now, heavy industry has been able to pollute without paying a price on that pollution, because those industries have received free carbon allowances. These free allowances have, in turn, meant that industries had no incentive to invest in cleaner technologies. Free allocation must end and we must move to 100% auctioning of those allowances so that polluters are forced to decarbonise, find clean methods of production and offer sustainable jobs. The Commission’s proposal to extend free allocation until 2035 is, therefore, unacceptable. The revenues that trading of allowances generate for Member States must be re-invested into the economic transition to climate neutrality and new solutions, boosting clean markets and products.
Felled trees in the Białowieza Forest, Poland.
Another essential part of meaningful EU action on carbon pollution is building a firewall between carbon reductions and carbon removals, like forests and other natural sinks. It is essential to stop them from being muddled together as the EU has done with its 55% net target. This is because removals are different from the emissions we release: for example, they are less stable due to weather events like droughts, which can actually lead to captured carbon being released again. By allowing emissions reductions to be offset by net removals in the land use sector, the Commission’s proposals risk delaying emissions reductions, which take bigger investments and structural changes compared to restoring forests, for example.
The final big concern in the Commission's proposals is the ongoing encouragement of burning trees for energy. Currently, this is included in the EU’s law on renewable energy, meaning governments can give financial support to the biomass industry. Yet, the burning of trees on an industrial scale is not only harmful for the climate - it releases the captured carbon and stops the tree from absorbing more - and air quality due to the toxic gases released, but also for biodiversity. The rules need to be revised so that burning tree trunks and not just stumps is no longer incentivised in the EU.
People's Climate March in Rome, Italy.
IMAGE: WWF Intl. / Antonio Amendola / The Stand
Finally, the EU’s targets are too low and should be pushed upwards. The climate target should be 65% emissions reductions by 2030, as mentioned above. But on top of that, the 2030 energy efficiency target, currently 32.5% should be increased to 45% at least. This would be a clear message from the EU that it wants to put people’s health and wellbeing first, since increasing energy efficiency helps ease heating bills and home pollution, in addition to helping the planet. Similarly, the EU’s renewable energy target for 2030, currently only 32%, must be revised upwards to at least 50% to ensure it contributes as much as possible towards reducing emissions.
These changes may appear bold, but they are what the science shows we have to do to keep temperature rise to 1.5°C and avoid the economically and socially devastating impacts of climate catastrophe. And they are not pie in the sky: the EU has already committed to ‘build back better’ from the Coronavirus pandemic with recovery spending of €1.8 trillion and to make the Green Deal the “motor” of this economic recovery, in the words of Commission President Von der Leyen.
The competitiveness of renewables such as solar and wind power, the huge public support for action on climate and nature, and the EU’s political commitment and public funding all mean that this can absolutely become reality.
If the EU can make a Fit for 55% package which is fit for a 1.5°C world, it will be taking a massive step forwards for Silvija, Gabriel, Piotr, Eva and Sean, as well as for all Europeans and beyond. It will be living up to its Green Deal and the commitment EU Commission President Von der Leyen made for the Green Deal to become the “motor of Europe’s economic recovery”. It will show other countries - who will all meet in November at the COP26 climate summit in the UK - that acting on climate and transforming the economy can go hand in hand with a people-centred, democratic, sustainable and affluent society.
The European Policy Office contributes to the achievement of WWF’s global mission by leading the WWF network to shape EU policies impacting on the European and global environment.
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