Illustration: © Lars-Erik Håkansson

EU needs net zero emissions by 2040

In order to stay within the limited carbon budget that is left, the EU will need to reduce its domestic greenhouse gas emissions by at least 3 per cent per year.

The recently published Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (SR1.5) of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)  gave both a stark warning, and reason for optimism. It showed that many dangerous impacts of climate change that were previously attributed to a global warming of 2°C will already occur when we pass the 1.5°C threshold. And it showed, as the problem of climate change is man-made, that we are therefore also able to take action and keep temperature rise below 1.5°C.

But this needs strong and sustained action soon. Because our world is warming and we are already experiencing impacts such as heat waves, droughts, forest fires, flooding, and failed crops, and need to prepare for more of these in the coming years. And while the damage in Europe is significant and devastating, we witness even more disastrous impacts in many vulnerable countries and communities around the world, even while they hardly contribute to the problem.

This all proves that our leaders were right when they agreed at the Paris Climate Summit, in December 2015, to pursue efforts to limit temperature increase to 1.5°C. But unfortunately they did not link this collective commitment to an increase of the individual commitments that all governments brought to Paris. These Paris pledges, in the form of emission reduction targets for 2030, will not limit temperature rise to 1.5°C. At best, they will keep us just below 3°C. This would have a devastating impact.

The IPCC 1.5°C report assesses that under present day warming of around 1°C, the 2018 heatwave would happen every four to five years, while a warming of 1.5°C, would make heatwaves occur in 4 out of 10 summers, and a warming of 2°C would increase this even to 6 out of 10. The difference in terms of impacts between 1.5°C and the old target of 2°C is substantial. For example, an extra 0.5°C could see global sea levels rise 10cm more by 2100 affecting an additional 10 million people; would double the number of people expected to suffer from water shortages; and tropical heat waves would last up to a month longer.

The IPCC report also shows how we can limit temperature rise to 1.5°C. For this, all countries will need to substantially increase current inadequate levels of action. And the EU will need to take its fair share of the action, both in terms of reducing emissions at home, but also by providing financial and other support to poor and vulnerable countries, to enable them to act and help them to adapt to unavoidable impacts and recover from regrettable damages that are already happening.

To achieve the 1.5°C target the EU will need a very fast phase out of the use of fossil fuels, a steep reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a substantial increase in the capacity of our forests, wetlands and grasslands to remove carbon from the atmosphere, through sustainable ecosystem restoration. Research and innovation will play an important role in making the zero transition happening, but at the same time it needs to be clear that in order to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change, we need to adapt our lifestyles to sustainable levels of consumption, in particular in the fields of transport and food consumption. Furthermore, we need a drastic shift in financial flows from dirty fossil fuel subsidies to investments in clean alternatives, while also enabling a just transition providing maximum support to workers and vulnerable communities.

The above may seem a daunting task, but in fact the proposed solutions offer multiple benefits in terms of economic development, employment, health improvement and access to energy systems. In the energy sector for instance, the cost of renewable energy is comparable or even advantageous to the cost of traditional energy sources. Similarly investments in energy savings, storage, electrification all offer economic opportunities .

On top, taking action now will limit the economic cost that is linked to the impacts of climate change. In the EU alone, climate related economic losses amounted up to 11.6 billion euro in 2015, and the economic costs for the EU would run up to €120 billion per year under a 2°C scenario, and up to €200 billion per year under 3°C .

As a consequence of the near-linear relationship between cumulative carbon emissions and peak temperature, a carbon budget can be identified that sets the maximum total of cumulative emissions that can be allowed to achieve a certain temperature limit. The IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C indicates that in order to have a likely chance (66%) to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C, the world could emit no more than 420 Gigatonne of carbon in the period 2017 to 2100. This equals about 12 years of current emissions. It should be very clear that we have little time to act. For the EU, time is even shorter, as the EU has already consumed more than its fair share of the budget in the period before 2017, and hence should leave space in the global budget for poorer countries that should get more time for their zero carbon transition.

In order to stay within the limited budget that is left, the EU will need to radically phase out its emissions and similarly drastically increase its capacity to remove carbon from the atmosphere. In order to stay within its fair carbon budget, the EU will need to reduce its domestic greenhouse gas emissions by at least 3 per cent per year, reaching near zero emissions by 2040. This would include setting new greenhouse gas emission reduction targets for 2030 (-60%), 2035 (-80%) and 2040 (-95%).

In order to do so, a rapid shift to a 100% renewable energy system in the power, transport and buildings sectors would be needed. This will need increased political support for investments in renewable energy, energy demand reduction, energy storage, and electrification. Even more action and innovation would be needed to bring the industrial and agricultural sectors towards near zero emissions.

Next to rapid and deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the EU will need to support domestic ecosystem restoration in order to substantially increase the removal capacity of forests, grasslands, wetlands, agricultural lands and peatlands. We need clear rules that ensure we account for what the atmosphere sees in terms of emissions and removals from land use and forestry; and we need more and better sustainable forest and land management, that ensures an increase of the capacity of our natural capital to remove emissions at least beyond the current annual removal of 5% of 1990 emissions.

The combination of both efforts, a -95% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and a 5% removal through natural solutions, both compared to 1990 emission levels, would lead to the EU achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. This should be the benchmark for a fair contribution of the EU to the efforts to avoid dangerous climate change.

Wendel Trio
Director, Climate Action Network Europe


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