In a reaction on the European State of the Union, three Wageningen University & Research climate experts praise the EU for making its green ambitions for 2030 even more incisive. In the State of the Union, held by EU-president Ursula von der Leyen, the current state of affairs and ambitions of the EU are laid down. One of the most notable ambitions is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030, 15% more than the current goal.
According to Rik Leemans, professor of Environmental System Analytics, it was already clear in the early 1990s that the emissions of CO2 needed to be slashed in half to combat climate change. ‘Since then, global CO2 emissions have increased tenfold. The UN climate treaty of 1992 stipulated that greenhouse gas emissions must be stabilised to the degree that prevents hazardous human interference in the climate system.’
World leaders agreed in Paris in 2015 that a global temperature increase of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celcius is likely harmless, and must, therefore, not be exceeded. All countries agreed to reduce their emissions. Leemans: ‘Recently, my research group calculated that these agreements lead to a 3.5-degree rise in temperature, and certainly not to the desired maximum of 2°C. New international goals and agreements are urgently needed, in particular as governments, despite the ambitious start in the period of 1990-1997 (Kyoto protocol), have failed to reduce global emissions.’
Postponing promises and measures to reach CO2-neutrality on a global scale, is not helping, says Leemans. ‘Traditional approaches don’t appear to be working. Hopefully, the new EU Green Deal will inspire citizens, cities, countries, banks and businesses to develop fresh new initiatives.’
The legal side
Josephine van Zeben is a professor of Environmental Law at Wageningen University & Research. She notes that, besides the measures proposed by the EU for its own industries and economies, global action in this domain remains essential.
‘The EU focuses on the need to develop a so-called Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism. This mechanism obligates non-European importers to lower their emissions in order to gain access to the European market. This has, however, been the subject of debate, as it is not clear whether the current agreements within the World Trade Organisation permit such restrictions. Von der Leyen notes the important role China plays and stresses that the EU presumes that China will adhere to its obligations regarding emissions (that are not laid down in legislation). A fine ambition that will be motivated by China’s national interest in fighting climate change.’
A 55% reduction in greenhouse gasses by 2030 can best be achieved through an ambitious plan with large steps, involving all stakeholders, and showcasing innovative pioneers, according to Leemans.
‘It is relatively easy to take small steps in energy efficiency and reduction of emissions. But these small steps will not add up to a reduction of over fifty per cent. The 55% target in less than ten years calls for new fervour. We must think outside the box if we are to achieve this reduction. This calls for a far-reaching collaboration between industry, the financial sector, science, governments and citizens. It is technically possible, as the IPCC demonstrates, but the political will often lags behind.’
One of the examples cited by Leemans is the different sectors that are dependent on fossil fuels. ‘They are still financially supported because they pay little or no taxes on energy. That is bizarre. In order to make this change, this policy must be halted. Moreover, emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses must be more heavily taxed.’
During the State of the Union, Von der Leyen focused on three areas with high potential, according to the EU: Further developing hydrogen as an energy source, renovating the current supply of housing, and creating 1 million charging stations for electric vehicles.
Van Zeben: ‘Regarding hydrogen, the choice between fossil fuel (the result of a gas-based process) and renewable or clean energy from hydrogen is not explicitly named in the State of the Union. This is likely a strategic choice to meet the gas industry. It is, indeed, a major issue in the further development of this sector and technology. Moreover, the infrastructure of power companies in Europe is not adjusted to the use of hydrogen-based energy – 15 member states currently disallow the use of hydrogen in their network. Legally, this may be solved at a European level through the energy union. But, lifting physical limitations depends on further technological innovations.’
According to Van Zeben, renewing existing buildings within the European Union has long been considered not cost-efficient. Moreover, regulations in this sector often match different areas of national legislation. Van Zeben names spacial planning and social housing policies, which do not fall within the EU’s authority.
‘To make these and other ambitions possible, the plan is to adjust all existing European climate and energy laws before the coming summer. This is an ambitious proposal, considering the complexity of the legislation and the hard-fought political compromises upon which it is based.’
Social scientific research essential
Rik Leemans calls for more economic and social scientific research. ‘How do we make this sustainable change? How do we convince opponents and sceptics, while inspiring pioneers to proceed? These are urgent questions. The time is limited, which means technical research must be linked to stakeholders from sectors of government and industry.’
Stijn Reinhard, a climate and water economist, has been conducting research from an economic and social scientific perspective within WUR for many years. ‘Achieving this ambition will be quite a challenge. Von de Leyen focuses on energy usage as a means of achieving the 55% reduction. The Green Deal also contains measures on other terrains, that are hitherto not fully developed. We need insight into what measures allow us to reach the 55% reduction at the lowest possible societal expense. This includes collateral effects of the measures, such as effects on biodiversity and forestation, as well as the yet unknown potential contribution of new innovations. The EU will, rightly so, invest heavily in these innovations to create further options of reaching the 55% reduction goal by 2030.’
Reinhart stresses that the way the costs are distributed over member states and sectors is important. ‘A fair distribution of costs means that some member states will have to be supported to take efficiency measures for the EU. Member states in Eastern Europe were already able to contribute significantly through a restructuring of their industry and energy supply. Follow-up steps will be much more difficult.’