Zero Emission Plans Come Too Late for the EU

Pandemic’s impact on emissions could present the EU with an opportunity to improve global climate politics

By Mathew Carr

Nov. 5, 2020 — LONDON, EXCLUSIVE: The adoption of emission-reduction targets by Canada, China, Japan and South Korea, including some net-zero limits mid century, has apparently come too late for the European Union to tighten its objective for 2020.

That’s despite the fact that Europe is probably going to meet that target anyway — because coronavirus-pandemic lockdowns are slashing emissions from electricity, transport and industry.

Back in 2012, the EU was trying to get the world interested in protecting the climate. It pushed to extend the Kyoto Protocol climate agreement to 2020 and sought to muster other countries to adopt tight 2020 emission targets.

It was fighting a losing battle, with nations focused on recovering from the global financial crisis. Global emissions surged and remained at record, or near-record, levels until the pandemic hit this year.

To lure more ambition, the EU said at the time it would adopt a plan to cut emissions by 30% versus 1990 levels by 2020, instead of its current target of 20%.

Back in 2012, I was reporting from Doha, Qatar, at the UN meeting where envoys agreed to extend the Kyoto deal by eight years to this year. It was, like many UN climate meetings, punctuated by flare ups between nations about how to share the emissions-cutting effort going forward, and pay for it.

The deal achieved at the 2012 meeting in the desert outside the city and ratified only last month, said this in part:

As part of a global and comprehensive agreement for the period beyond 2012, the European Union reiterates its conditional offer to move to a 30 per cent reduction by 2020 compared to 1990 levels, provided that other developed countries commit themselves to comparable emission reductions and developing countries contribute adequately according to their responsibilities and respective capabilities.

European officials are thinking the condition was never met — other developed nations didn’t commit themselves to comparable reductions.

Quite right. U.S. emissions from energy are approximately flat on 1990 levels, according to BP Plc data.

The recently announced long-time goals by developed and emerging countries in 2030 (eg Canada) and/or in 2050 (Japan and South Korea) or 2060 (China), while very much welcomed, have no relationship to the Doha Amendment, is what EU insiders are saying.  The EU is nonetheless on track to overachieve its Doha Amendment commitment to reduce its emissions by more than 20%.

Indeed, the EU had cut emissions by about 24% by 2019, according to the region’s Environment Agency. They’ve dropped another 15 points so far this year alone because of the pandemic, if power-sector data from Finnish energy group Wartsila is any indication.

So, 30% seems doable.

It’s especially doable because the EU could make up any shortfall by buying Kyoto carbon credits such as Certified Emission Reductions.

There are plenty of these around. Prices for CERs have plunged because of a lack of demand because countries have not taken on ambitious enough targets that would create that demand.

They are about 1% of the price of EU carbon allowances:

Under Kyoto and its Doha extension, the EU was indicating it would probably need a few carbon credits produced in emerging countries such as Brazil, China, India and Russia. But the demand wasn’t that great because the 2020 target was weak. The EU has allowed a limited amount of CERs into its carbon market in the 13 years through this year, which briefly boosted prices 10 years ago.

Now, with the climate crisis getting worse and worse, the EU is wanting emerging countries (and others) to finally agree rules of the Paris climate deal, where starting next year countries can finance emission cuts in other nations as a way of meeting their pledges (known as contributions) in a cost-efficient way.

Since the EU is now considering a 2030 emissions-reduction target of 60% below 1990 levels, it seems to me to make sense to take on 30% by this year. This would show developing nations that the richer countries most of blame for global warming are willing to keep their promises and be as ambitious as possible in their greenhouse-gas cuts.

It would also potentially reward the companies that put real money into emission-reduction projects in developing countries during the past two decades, assuming the EU does indeed need a few extra carbon credits to meet its more-ambitious target.

Such a move would also show the incoming U.S. president, whoever he is, that steep emission cuts are not only doable, but beneficial, because they will probably spur more global cooperation on one of the world’s most urgent and dangerous problems — climate change.

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