Europe and Central Asia
6 Sep 2016

Holding on to the EU’s climate ambition?

Pines (c) Elvis Kennedy Flickr media commons
By Sini Eräjää

Fighting climate change is the perfect example of a global challenge that requires cross-border action. Most EU citizens see climate change as a serious problem and believe that governments and businesses are responsible for tackling it. When citizens are asked about the added value of the EU and its future, environmental protection (together with social equity) are at the top of their concerns.

Climate and energy policies have already made their way to the core of the European Union and as the EU is moving forward, post-Brexit, these are also clear policy areas where citizens feel the EU has legitimacy and purpose.  Standing together the EU Member States have committed to fairly ambitious (even if still insufficient to reduce climate change to safe levels) overall targets to cut emissions and to change energy production.

However when it is time to deliver on these commitments, most Member States focus on narrow national interests and try to find ways and reasons to argue why they should do less.

In July the Commission published proposals to reduce emissions or increase emission removals in sectors such as agriculture, transport and housing (Effort Sharing Regulation) and in land use and forestry (LULUCF). During this process Member States were lobbying for flexibilities which in theory can be useful to ensure cost-efficiency of the measures taken. Unfortunately,  in practice the argument easily slips into just creating various kinds of loopholes which allow less reduction of emissions.

Member States are fiddling with the accounting rules for carbon emissions (and their removals), by hiding behind special national circumstances, pretending that the emissions are taken care of under other policy areas and calling whatever activity is in question sustainable – even if it doesn’t reduce emissions or causes other environmental harm.

One of the ways to avoid tackling emissions in politically difficult sectors is to try to offset the emissions by other activities in other sectors, for example by planting trees. The Commission has allowed member states to do this kind of offsetting by up to 280 Mt of CO2 emissions in agriculture, transport, housing and other sectors covered by the new Effort Sharing Regulation, corresponding to about 10% of the overall emission reduction efforts in the these sectors. But no proof is required that these activities would be additional climate mitigation efforts or that they are environmentally sound.

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With the launch of the LULUCF policy proposal the Commission indicated that renewable energy producers won’t need to worry about bioenergy emissions in the future since they will be counted in the land use and forest sectors. Rather than tackling the issue head on, the responsibility over bioenergy emissions is placed on one sector and the credits and incentives for “reducing emissions” given to another – an approach that doesn’t ensure that the use of bioenergy actually reduces emissions.

A last resort to avoid committing to the task of emission reductions seems to be to label as sustainable the activities under scrutiny  - no matter the actual climate and environmental implications. For example, as the Commission prepares a new policy on the sustainability of bioenergy, many have rushed to declare that as long as biomass comes from “sustainably” managed forests or other ecosystems, then it is good for the climate as well. Equally countries are eager to declare that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) guarantees sustainable agriculture while ignoring that emissions from “sustainable” agriculture are expected to increase. New policies and measures are needed beyond current, vague slogans on sustainability to ensure emissions reductions – both for bioenergy and in agriculture.

While many politicians boast in their national media how they’ve defended their country’s interests and avoided any additional climate efforts in the European negotiations, in front of the rest of the world they still appear to be proud of the joint European efforts and pledge their commitment to them. It’s in these kinds of moments the European Union can show its strength. Through collective efforts, by putting everyone in the same boat we’ll have a much better chance to combat critical borderless challenges like climate change.

With 95 – 100 % emission savings needed in the EU by 2050 there really isn’t room to discuss which country or sector can avoid radical emission reductions – efforts are needed across Europe so let’s just get on with it. 


Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.