Cop 26 profile: Europe sets climate bar high

  • Market: Crude oil, Emissions, Natural gas, Oil products
  • 22/10/21

The bloc hopes the summit will see other major emitters deliver concrete plans for net zero, writes Dafydd ab Iago

The EU has dominated global climate talks since the first UN Conference of the Parties (Cop) summit in Berlin, in addition to holding the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat in the former German capital Bonn. On top of hosting more than half of the Cops since 1995, Europe has become the first major economic region to lay out in detail a policy path towards net zero carbon emissions in 2050.

"Europe needs to lead, so the rest of the world understands where we need to go," EU climate action commissioner Frans Timmermans told EU environment ministers signing off this month on the bloc's negotiating mandate for Cop 26. That self-image of a bloc leading with ambitious headline targets, and detailed EU and national legislation, is key to the EU's negotiating position in Glasgow.

Having surpassed its previous 20pc reduction target set for 2020, the EU submitted confirmation, this May, to the UN of EU-level emission cuts of 3.8pc in 2019 compared with 2018. That is a full 24pc lower than 1990 levels, even before Covid-19 restrictions cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions last year. The bloc also updated its nationally determined contribution (NDC) and legally bound itself to carbon neutrality by 2050 and cutting GHG emissions in 2030 by at least 55pc compared with 1990, up from a previous 40pc target (see table).

For Brussels then, Glasgow must force other major emitters, such as China and the US, to deliver with concrete plans rather than vague commitments towards net zero. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen only sees China's announcement at the UN that it will stop building coal-fired generation abroad or US president Joe Biden's promise to double US international climate finance as "steps in the right direction". While repeating a promise to commit an additional €4bn ($4.7bn) in climate finance in 2021-27, von der Leyen wants "concrete" plans from international partners. The EU brings to Glasgow the highest level of ambition. "We do it for our planet. And we do it for Europe," she told the European Parliament this month.

If altruism does not push other Cop parties into action, the EU is fine-tuning a carbon border mechanism to protect its carbon-intensive industries. The mechanism starts in 2026 with a duty on cement, iron and steel, aluminium, fertiliser and electricity imported to the EU from countries not subject to carbon pricing.

Concrete carbon phase-outs

Polishing the money aspects of the bloc's negotiating position for Glasgow, finance ministers from the EU's 27 member states stress that the "ambitious" updated NDC is being implemented by a package of legislative proposals adopted by the commission in July. And Timmermans warned environment ministers this month against using the energy price shocks that EU members are facing as an excuse to back down on proposals that are effectively phase-out schedules for CO2-intensive sectors. Timmermans said that if Europe leaves the climate crisis untackled, the resulting social unrest will be far worse than France's 2018 gilets jaunes protests over fuel and climate taxes.

More climate sceptical — and coal dependent — Poland is, for the moment, relatively isolated in arguing for postponing or lowering various climate and energy goals because of the energy price spikes. The majority of EU politicians seem to accept calls by Timmermans and von der Leyen to double down on decarbonisation policies such as an increased GHG cut — of 61pc, rather than 43pc, by 2030, compared with 2005 levels — for industries under the bloc's emissions trading system (ETS). Distributors of road and heating fuels will have to purchase allowances, from 2026, to cover their emissions under a separate ETS with a carbon price that may well float above €100/t. In aviation, allowances for intra-European flights will be slowly reduced, with operators losing free allowances from 2026.

The EU's commitment to delivery is evidenced by over 3,000 pages of dense legal proposals and explanatory texts that aim to set GHG fuel intensity cuts for maritime fuels, oblige flight operators to take up 5pc sustainable aviation fuels by 2030, rising to 20pc by 2035 and 63pc by 2050, and for renewables to reach 40pc, rather than 32pc previously, of EU gross final consumption of energy by 2030.

Tougher CO2 emissions standards for new passenger cars and vans require average emissions to come down by 55pc from 2030 and by 100pc from 2035, compared with a 2020-21 target of 95g CO2/km​. That effectively sets a 2035 phase-out date for sales of unabated internal combustion engines. There is also a 13pc GHG intensity reduction target for transport fuels by 2030, effectively doubling to 28pc the share of renewable fuels in road transport.

Ships calling at EU ports will have to reduce the average GHG intensity of their fuels by 6pc by 2030, 13pc by 2035 and 75pc by 2050, all from 2020 levels. And the commission wants member states to push zero-emission car sales by equipping major highways with electric charging every 60km and hydrogen refuelling every 150km.

Article 6 integrity

Signing off on a negotiating mandate for Timmermans and the commission in Glasgow, EU environment ministers have called for article 6 of the Paris climate agreement to set rules for international carbon trading that are "consistent with the necessary increased global ambition and the achievement of climate neutrality, and that avoid double counting and lock in to high-emissions pathways". Ministers specifically want article 6 provisions that promote sustainable development, ensure environmental integrity and ambition, and address risks such as "non-permanence" of carbon cuts or sequestration and "leakage" from projects.

Off the record, EU officials involved in the nitty-gritty of climate negotiations are openly sceptical about international carbon trading, flagging an increasing number of complaints about the credibility of voluntary offsets with "different controversies in different countries". Officials fear double counting and the need for "corresponding" adjustments of their own emission figures when countries sell reductions to others. "Fostering global ambition, ensuring environmental integrity and avoiding double accounting are at the core of the Paris agreement and of the EU position on market mechanisms," European environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius says.

The EU's non-governmental organisations have called the bloc's negotiating position "good enough", especially as EU ministers now back a five-year timeframe for countries' NDCs to the Paris agreement to be implemented from 2031. But campaigners say the EU27 have intentionally left their negotiators room to manoeuvre, including on how the EU and member states will help reach the €100bn goal for international climate finance for developing countries. And non-governmental organisation Carbon Market Watch wants the EU to do more to ensure international carbon market negotiations move beyond just compensating emissions and zero-sum offsetting to deliver real GHG reductions. It calls for tough offsetting and carbon trading rules at Cop 26, and will this month present critical analysis of claims by companies including Shell, Total, BP, Russian state-controlled Gazprom and Chinese state-controlled PetroChina of carbon-neutral natural gas and crude shipments.

EU GHG reduction targets
NDC target % Baseline yearTarget year
2016 — 40pc19902030
2020 — 55pc 19902030
2016 — 80-95pc19902050
2020 — 100pc19902050

EU GHG emissions by source

Net EU electricity generation, 2019

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