Naysayers argue nothing can be done about climate change; action is too costly, disruptive, and technically challenging. Anarchists argue emissions are fault of the economic system; we need to overthrow capitalism and degrow the economy to reduce emissions. Europe may be about to prove both sides wrong.
Greenhouse gas emissions of European Union member states were 32.5% lower in 2022 than in 1990. In 2023, the EU managed a substantial emission reduction of five percentage points, according to projections of the Global Carbon Project, a group of scientists. This substantial emission reduction is the result both of climate policy progress and high energy prices following Russia’s war on the Ukraine. If the EU successfully concludes and implements the European Commission’s climate policy proposals, it may be well on track to achieving its ambitious emissions targets of minus 55% in 2030 and net-zero in 2050.
Unparalleled but incomplete progress is the main finding of an assessment of European climate policy by the independent European Climate Advisory Board, which was created under the EU’s climate law of 2022. The scientists point to large gaps in agriculture, which has not managed to reduce emissions at all. They miss systematic attention to saving energy and materials. They see substantial and unmet investment needs, in installations that will have very low running expenses. They identify opportunities for further emission reductions, some profitable such as the phase-out of fossil-fuel subsidies and other economic distortions in favour of resource overconsumption.
Late turn-around following costly mistakes.
Like the rest of the world, Europe is late in realizing the depth of change in development needed to build a zero-carbon economy and staking out a course of reaching that goal. Past mistakes, such as making oneself dependent on cheap Russian gas and investing heavily in diesel engines rather than car battery technology, imply costly course correction now. Before 2019, the EU had put in place a general climate policy architecture, including an Emissions Trading System which puts a price on emissions from large stationary polluters, national emission targets for buildings, transport and agriculture, and technology standards. The carbon price was low, and progress was piecemeal and always counteracted by policies in agriculture, transport, and industry that increased emissions.
Finally, real leadership
With the European Green Deal from 2020, the Commission under the impressive leadership of Ursula von der Leyen and supported by the European Parliament and Council, has undertaken comprehensive policy reform addressing many emission sources. Not all policy proposals have yet been approved, however, and many still need to be implemented by the member states. Implementation can be more or less ambitious, more or less effective, slow or fast. The Board finds that only a swift and effective implementation of the proposed policies will allow the EU to meet its emission target for 2030. A successful completion of the European Green Deal, which is well under way, would demonstrate European leadership in addressing one of the fundamental challenges of our times and put pressure on other governments.
Opportunities to save tax money and the planet.
What struck me most in reviewing European climate policy is the persistence of policies that are both costly and cause of emissions. The European Court of Auditors has repeatedly criticised fossil fuel subsidies, which have not been reduced over the past decades. Further, tax breaks support excessive energy use, unsustainable agricultural practices, and large residences. Why do our politicians feel that this is a good use of our tax money? These are past mistakes that need to be urgently corrected, but they imply confronting special interest groups who benefit from public largess. Sometimes fossil fuel subsidies and energy tax breaks also benefit less well-off parts of the population. In these cases, the board recommends, targeted policies should be put in place to help people and businesses to adjust.
Despair or indifference? There is a better alternative.
The transition to net-zero will need to continue after 2030. Policy implementation is not at all trivial, from renovating an aging housing stock to constructing the required electricity grid. But the fact that the crucial milestone of a 55% reduction is well in sight demonstrates the feasibility of moving away from fossil fuels. With redoubling our efforts, rather than overthrowing the system or throwing up our hands in despair, we can solve one of the big challenges of our times! Denying progress, as both activists and populists are prone to do, falsely suggests that we are on the wrong way when we have finally begun to turn the ship around.
This post was published in Norwegian in Dagens Næringsliv.
Edgar Hertwich, a member of the EUs Climate Advisory Board, is professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and currently a guest at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna.