The European Union says it is aiming to become the first major economy to go “climate neutral” by 2050.
Under the plan, emissions of greenhouse gases after that date would have to be offset by planting trees or by burying the gases underground.
Scientists say that net-zero emissions by 2050 are needed to have a fighting chance of keeping global temperatures under 1.5C this century.
The EU says the move will also cut premature air pollution deaths by 40%.
What is climate neutrality?
Climate neutrality means your emissions are balanced by methods of removing warming gases from the atmosphere. So the warming emissions that are created by cars and power plants should be counteracted by the greenhouse gases removed from the air by the planting of new forests or through carbon capture technologies which would see the CO2 buried underground.
Getting to this point would require large cuts in emissions from the current position. Since 1990 the EU has cut its emissions by over 20% while the economies of member states have continued to grow.
They have set themselves much harder targets for 2030 of cutting emissions by 40% – The EU says it will achieve this target but now plans to go much further again by becoming climate neutral by 2050.
How will they get there?
The EU have set out eight scenarios for member states to cut warming gases – two of these strategies would see Europe become climate neutral.
The EU says that this can be done with existing technologies such as solar and wind energy which would have to be ramped up to provide 80% of electricity. Energy efficiency measures such as home insulation would also need to be boosted to reduce energy consumption by half by the middle of the century.
“With this plan, Europe will be the world’s first major economy to go for net-zero emissions by 2050,” said EU climate commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete. “We have all the tools to be ambitious.”
The EU believes that the measures will help achieve the goals of the Paris agreement will be expensive but will boost economies by 2% of GDP by 2050 and reduce energy imports by over 70%, saving up to three trillion euros a year.
Why is this important?
The IPCC report on keeping temperatures below 1.5C was a “wake-up call” said Mr Cañete. Reports in recent days have also underlined just how far the gap has grown between what countries promised to do under the Paris agreement, and how far they’ve gotten with those endeavours.
The UN emissions gap study also showed that the majority of rich countries are not on track to meet their carbon cutting commitments by 2030.
With global climate talks due to start in a few days in Poland the EU’s move, although still a strategy and not a firm commitment, will be welcome news.
“If we do not lead, no one else will,” said Mr Cañete.
Is everyone in Europe happy with the new strategy?
Not quite. Some countries such as Germany are struggling with their current commitments and are worried that further cuts would threaten their industries. Others such as Poland are still reliant on coal and would object to even more stringent restrictions on the use of fossil fuels.
Some countries though are keen to press ahead – a group of ten, including Denmark, Sweden and Spain have written a letter to the EU asking for a “clear direction” towards net-zero emissions.
Climate campaigners say the step, though welcome, doesn’t go far enough fast enough.
They are worried that there is no plan to increase the intermediate targets for 2030, which many scientists say is crucial. They also want the net-zero date brought forward.
“We are calling for 2040 as the time that would be most in line with safer scenarios to keep temperatures under 1.5C,” said Wendel Trio from Climate Action Network Europe.
“Going to net-zero by 2050 as the Commission proposes might need a lot of reliance on carbon removal techniques, there are lots of proposals but it is not clear that it can actually happen.”
Has anyone else signed up to climate neutrality?
Sweden has legislated to achieve net zero emissions by 2045. Other countries are looking at it, including the UK which has asked the Committee on Climate Change to report on the idea.
What happens next?
The EU says there needs to be a debate among member states about how to achieve this long term goal. The plan is to adopt and submit the ambitious strategy to the UN by early 2020.
However any further development could be held up by the fact that a new EU commission will be selected next year.European countries have already vowed to take significant steps to curb their effect on the climate, but they’re now setting a more ambitious target. The European Union now hopes to achieve a “climate neutral” economy by 2050 — that is, zero net greenhouse gas emissions. The strategy would involve wider use of renewable energy (80 percent by 2050), a shift to electric transportation and ‘decarbonizing’ industry.
To do this will require “significant additional investment,” according to energy commissioner Maroš Šefčovič. The EU estimated that the continent would need €175 billion to €290 billion (about $199 billion to $330 billion) per year. However, the EU believed it would ultimately save money by cutting back on fossil fuel imports, upgrading air quality (thus reducing health care costs) and improving efficiency across he board.
It also pointed to historical evidence that economic growth and eco-friendliness aren’t mutually exclusive. Emissions have dropped 22 percent since 1990 even as the gross domestic product shot up by 58 percent, Šefčovič said. He acknowledged that governments couldn’t handle all the investments themselves, but promised incentives for private companies.
Whether or not the EU reaches its target is another matter. Individual nations each have their own objections. Germany has generally resisted higher emissions reduction targets for cars, while Poland is heavily dependent on coal and isn’t likely to welcome efforts to shut them down, even if they’re replaced by solar and wind facilities. The EU might also face resistance from nationalist leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbàn, who could object to shouldering dramatic changes in economic policy. The goal is an important start, but some countries may have to pick up the slack if others refuse to change.