Climate ambition in times of corona

Europe's World

Climate & Energy

Picture of Wendel Trio
Wendel Trio

Director of Climate Action Network Europe

Like the coronavirus crisis, the climate crisis hits the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest. Rising temperatures will lead to similar massive disruptions to our society and our economy. We thus need not only to support those impacted by the virus itself and the economic havoc it brings, but also to start thinking about how we can prevent the climate crisis from bringing more disruption and despair.

Contrary to COVID-19, we have known for a while that climate change is happening. But just like with the virus, we know that the longer we wait to take radical action, the faster and the heavier its impact will be. This is the reason why in December 2015 all the world’s governments concluded the Paris Agreement, and committed to at least trying to “limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognising that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change”.

Combined with this collective promise, countries also made specific commitments as to how they would contribute to this objective, through the so-called ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ (NDCs). It immediately became clear that there was a mismatch between collective and individual commitments. The United Nations services calculated that the full implementation of all the national commitments would, at best, lead us to a temperature increase of 2.7°C.

The postponement of COP26 to 2021 cannot be an excuse for delaying countries’ homework

In order to close this emissions gap, governments made another commitment, namely that they would revisit their NDCs and submit a new and improved proposal “by 2020”. This is what made 2020 the year of climate ambition. And this is what made the Glasgow Summit (COP26), initially scheduled to take place in November 2020, so important. Glasgow’s COP26 would have been the ideal moment for all countries of the world to come up with the new targets, as promised.

But the postponement of COP26 to 2021 cannot be an excuse for delaying countries’ homework. The commitment is clearly “by 2020” and not “by COP26”. The longer we wait to take radical action, the more difficult it will be to avoid the disruptive effects of climate change. The European Commission has rightfully indicated that it plans to continue with its Impact Assessment for a new 2030 climate target. We need the same commitment from all EU member states in order to agree on a new 2030 climate target as soon as possible and certainly still in 2020. This would have multiple benefits.

Firstly, the current crisis is having an immense negative impact on our economy and governments are starting to develop large-scale economic recovery measures. Agreeing on the need to substantially increase our efforts to tackle climate change would ensure that the proposed recovery measures boost the transition to a climate-neutral economy. Our governments must make sure that future investments are immediately directed towards the transition needed to guarantee a safe future for everybody, starting with those that need it most.

Secondly, a rapid EU agreement on a new 2030 climate target could serve as an incentive for other big emitting economies to do the same. As long as the EU, given its claimed leadership role, does not come up with a new target, no other major emitter will. A rapid agreement will at least bring the other big emitters such as China, India and the US – the latter depending, of course, on the outcome of the presidential elections – into the spotlight.

Applying this 7.6% annual reduction to the EU would lead to emission reductions of at least 65% by 2030

There will be voices claiming that due to COVID-19, we need more time to assess the impact of the ongoing crisis on current and future economic growth, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. But that sounds like neglecting that we actually can shape the future, and that it is better to set objectives sooner rather than later, so that it is clear what needs to happen in the coming years to prevent the most detrimental impacts of climate change.

Those impacts will be disruptive and long-lasting, unless we are able to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C, which will require radical action. The UN’s latest Emissions Gap Report calculated that in order to have a real chance of reaching the 1.5°C target, all major emitters would need to reduce their emissions by 7.6% per year between 2020 and 2030. Applying this 7.6% annual reduction to the EU would lead to emission reductions of at least 65% by 2030, well beyond the current target of at least 40%, and also well beyond the 50-55% target the Commission is looking at in its Impact Assessment.

One wonders why the European Commission, despite the clear recommendations from the UN, keeps refusing to even look at how we can meaningfully contribute to the 1.5°C commitment. This is not about a calculation exercise; it is about the future of those most vulnerable. They need all the help and support we can give. This includes radical action to prevent the worst scenario of runaway climate change from happening.

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