SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt – There is some hocus-pocus going on with the emission reduction figures that the European Union proudly touts at the COP27 climate summit, climate activists claim.
The EU says it is one of the few parties to the Paris Agreement that actually abides by the rules and its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) – UN spokesperson for the pledges made under the 2015 pact – strengthens. The bloc’s original proposal was to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent by the end of the decade, but three new rule changes raise that to 57 percent.
“The EU is ready to update our NDC, which reflects this higher ambition… So don’t let anyone tell you, here or outside, that the EU is going backwards,” Frans Timmermans, the Commissioner responsible for the Green Deal of the EU block project, said Tuesday in Sharm El-Sheikh.
But climate NGOs are much more sceptical.
They claim that changes made to the block’s giant Fit for 55 projects are tweak numbers, but the actual CO2 pollution emitted by the block will not change. The critical change is the contribution of negative emissions under the revision of the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry Regulation (LULUCF), which calculates the CO2 absorbed by land and forests – otherwise known as carbon sinks.
“Before the climate law, the EU’s reduction targets were ‘gross’, meaning they didn’t include disposals from the sink,” said Mark Preston Aragonès, policy advisor at Bellona, an industry decarbonisation NGO. “But now that there’s a net target, they can play around and pretend they’re doing more to reduce emissions.”
He said a critical flaw in the way the EU estimates its new headline target of a 57% reduction in climate is that storing CO2 through natural sinks, such as soil and forests, is a less permanent form of climate action than the completely reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That’s because these ecosystems can be affected by natural disturbances, such as fires, pests and drought, which reduce their absorption capacity.
Ulriikka Aarnio, senior climate and land use policy coordinator at the Climate Action Network-Europe, an NGO, said the revised LULUCF regulation means “the sink is now bigger than foreseen in the EU climate law, but it’s on paper.”
The European Commission declined to comment specifically on the NGOs’ claim that the updated 57 percent reduction target is an accounting gimmick.
The block’s target for CO2 removals was changed last week to 310 million tons by 2030, up from the previous target of 265 million tons.
But even if EU countries meet their national targets, the “atmospheric impact” of the reductions “will not really be minus 310 million tonnes by 2030,” Aarnio added, because the LULUCF regulation allows EU countries to reduce some CO2 exclude emissions from land use and forestry in specific cases, such as forest fires.
“The flexibility allows you to discount emissions that you don’t account for as natural disturbances, but these emissions still go into the atmosphere,” she said.
The updated EU climate targets are also the result of two additional legislative changes: an update to the Effort Sharing Regulation, which sets national targets for emissions not covered by the EU emissions trading system; and a proposal to phase out combustion engines that emit CO2 by 2035.
“What has happened is that through the agreement of the legislations that I have mentioned, on zero-emission cars by 2035, on the distribution of efforts between Member States on reducing emissions, and on enabling the natural environment to be better carbon sinks… these three measures combined… end up with a reduction of 57 percent,” said Timmermans. “So it’s not a new goal, it’s not formulating a new ambition, it’s just translating what we’ve decided into actual reduction figures.”
Even if the 57 percent reduction is real, it’s still not enough to meet the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, complained Chiara Martinelli, a director of CAN Europe, arguing that the bloc should cut its emissions by 65 percent by the end of the decade.
“This small increase announced today at COP27 does not do justice to the calls of the most vulnerable countries on the frontline,” she said.