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Climate change

What is carbon neutrality and how can it be achieved by 2050?

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Under the Paris agreement, the EU has committed to carbon neutrality by the second half of the 21st century. What does it mean in practice? Climate change is already affecting the entire world, with extreme weather conditions such as drought, heat waves, heavy rain, floods and landslides becoming more frequent, including in Europe. Other consequences of the rapidly changing climate include rising sea levels, ocean acidification and loss of biodiversity.

In order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius – a threshold the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) suggests is safe –carbon neutrality by mid-21st century is essential. This target is also laid down in the Paris agreement signed by 195 countries, including the EU.

In November 2019, the European Commission presented the European Green Deal, its flagship plan that aims to make Europe climate neutral by 2050.

Paris agreement aims
  • Reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.
  • Undertake rapid reductions.

What is carbon neutrality?

Carbon neutrality means having a balance between emitting carbon and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere in carbon sinks. Removing carbon oxide from the atmosphere and then storing it is known as carbon sequestration. In order to achieve net zero emissions, all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions will have to be counterbalanced by carbon sequestration.

Carbon sink is any system that absorbs more carbon than it emits. The main natural carbon sinks are soil, forests and oceans. According to estimates, natural sinks remove between 9.5 and 11 Gt of CO2 per year. Annual global CO2 emissions reached 37.1 Gt in 2017.

To date, no artificial carbon sinks are able to remove carbon from the atmosphere on the necessary scale to fight global warming.

The carbon stored in natural sinks such as forests is released into the atmosphere through forest fires, changes in land use or logging. This is why it is essential to reduce carbon emissions in order to reach climate neutrality.

Carbon offsetting

Another way to reduce emissions and to pursue carbon neutrality is to offset emissions made in one sector by reducing them somewhere else. This can be done through investment in renewable energyenergy efficiency or other clean, low-carbon technologies. The EU’s emissions trading system (ETS) is an example of a carbon offsetting system.

EU goals

The European Union is committed to an ambitious climate policy. Under the Green Deal it aims to become continent that removes as many CO2 emissions as it produces by 2050. This goal will become legally binding if the European Parliament and Council adopt the new Climate Law. The EU’s interim emission reduction target for 2030 would also be updated from the current 40% reduction to a more ambitious one.

The Parliament’s environment committee voted on 11 September in favour of climate neutrality by 2050 and of a 60% emission reduction target by 2030 compared to the 1990 level - more ambitious than the Commission’s initial proposal of 50-55%. Committee members are calling for the Commission to set an additional interim target for 2040 to ensure progress towards the final goal.

In addition, committee members called for all EU countries individually to become climate neutral and insisted that after 2050, more CO2 should be removed from atmosphere than is emitted. Also, all direct or indirect subsidies to fossil fuels should be phased out by 2025 at the latest.

The Parliament as a whole will vote on the Climate Law during the plenary session on 5-8 October, after which it can start negotiations with the Council.

Currently five EU countries have set the target of climate neutrality in law: Sweden aims to reach net-zero emissions by 2045 and Denmark, France, Germany and Hungary by 2050.

Find out more about how the EU helps to reduce CO2 emissions

Climate change

EU climate law: MEPs want to increase 2030 emissions reduction target to 60%

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Parliament wants each individual EU member state to become carbon neutral by 2050 ©Adobe Stock 

All member states must become climate neutral by 2050, says Parliament in a vote on the EU climate law, calling for ambitious 2030 and 2040 emissions reduction targets.

Parliament has adopted its negotiating mandate on the EU climate law with 392 votes for, 161 against and 142 abstentions. The new law aims to transform political promises that the EU will become climate neutral by 2050 into a binding obligation and to give European citizens and businesses the legal certainty and predictability they need to plan for the transformation.

MEPs insist that both the EU and all member states individually must become climate-neutral by 2050 and that thereafter the EU shall achieve “negative emissions”. They also call for sufficient financing to achieve this.

The Commission must propose by 31 May 2023, through the ordinary decision-making procedure, a trajectory at EU level on how to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, say MEPs. It must take into account the total remaining EU greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions until 2050 to limit the increase in temperature in accordance with the Paris Agreement. The trajectory shall be reviewed after each stocktake at global level.

MEPs also want to set up an EU Climate Change Council (ECCC) as an independent scientific body to assess whether policy is consistent and to monitor progress.

A more ambitious 2030-target needed

The EU’s current emissions reductions target for 2030 is 40% compared to 1990. The Commission recently proposed to increase this target to “at least 55%” in the amended proposal for an EU climate law. MEPs today raised the bar even further, calling for a reduction of 60% in 2030, adding that national targets shall be increased in a cost-efficient and fair way.

They also want an interim target for 2040 to be proposed by the Commission following an impact assessment, to ensure the EU is on track to reach its 2050 target.

Finally, the EU and member states must also phase out all direct and indirect fossil fuel subsidies by 31 December 2025 at the latest, say MEPs, while they underline the need to continue efforts to combat energy poverty.

After the vote, Parliament rapporteur Jytte Guteland (S&D, Sweden) said: “The adoption of the report sends a clear message to the Commission and the Council, in light of the upcoming negotiations. We expect all member states to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 at the latest and we need strong interim targets in 2030 and 2040 for the EU to achieve this.

"I’m also satisfied with the inclusion of a greenhouse gas budget, which sets out the total remaining quantity of emissions that can be emitted until 2050, without putting at risk the EU’s commitments under the Paris Agreement.”

Next steps

Parliament is now ready to start negotiations with member states once Council has agreed upon a common position.

Background

Following the European Council decision (2019) to endorse the 2050 climate-neutrality objective, the Commission in March 2020 proposed the EU climate law that would make it a legal requirement for the EU to become climate-neutral by 2050.

Parliament has played an important role in pushing for more ambitious EU climate legislation and declared a climate emergency on 28 November 2019.

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Climate change

European Parliament cements position on climate change before haggling by member states

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European Union lawmakers have backed a plan to cut greenhouse gases by 60% from 1990 levels by 2030, hoping member states will not try to water the target down during upcoming negotiations, writes .

Results of the vote released today (8 October) confirm their preliminary votes earlier this week on a landmark law to make the EU’s climate targets legally binding.

The law, which contains the new EU emissions-cutting goal for 2030, passed by a large majority of 231 votes.

Parliament must now agree the final law with the EU’s 27 member countries, only a few of whom have said they would support a 60% emissions-cutting target. Lawmakers want to avoid countries whittling it away to below the level of emissions cuts proposed by the EU executive of at least 55%.

The EU’s current 2030 target is a 40% emissions cut.

Parliament also supported a proposal to launch an independent scientific council to advise on climate policy - a system already in place in Britain and Sweden - and a carbon budget, setting out the emissions the EU could produce without scuppering its climate commitments.

With climate-related impacts such as more intense heatwaves and wildfires already felt across Europe, and thousands of young people taking to the streets last month to demand tougher action, the EU is under pressure to ramp up its climate policies.

Groups representing investors with 62 trillion euros in assets under management, plus hundreds of businesses and NGOs today wrote to EU leaders urging them to agree an emissions-cutting target of at least 55% for 2030.

Scientists say this target, which has been proposed by the European Commission, is the minimum effort needed to give the EU a realistic shot at becoming climate neutral by 2050. The Commission wants the new 2030 goal finalized by the end of the year.

However, the climate law will require compromise from member countries. Wealthier states with large renewable energy resources are pushing for deeper emissions cuts, but coal-heavy countries including Poland and Czech Republic fear the economic fallout of tougher targets.

Given its political sensitivity, heads of government will likely decide their position on the 2030 target by unanimity, meaning one country could block it.

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Climate change

Credible net-zero targets need to include explicit plans for carbon dioxide removals

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Limiting global warming to 1.5°C, as stated in the Paris Agreement and assessed by the IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C (2018), will require policy action across two types of mitigation: those resulting in the rapid reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and those achieving removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, current governmental commitments to address climate change lack specific plans for mobilizing carbon dioxide removal to achieve the required carbon neutrality – namely a balance between emissions and removals – and collaborative policy frameworks under the Paris Agreement are not yet specific enough on how to measure and fund such mitigation action.

To contribute to understanding of how countries can implement Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and how those efforts can be counted as part of their national commitments to achieve the Paris Agreement targets, the NET-RAPIDO project is launching the report Net-Zero Emissions: the role of Carbon Dioxide Removal in the Paris Agreement.

The authors – Matthias Honegger, Axel Michaelowa and Matthias Poralla from Perspectives Climate Research – present a set of concrete recommendations for credibly including CDR strategies as part of national climate strategies and revised NDCs. These include: the setting of specific CDR targets for 2030, 2040 and 2050; the expansion of research on the consequences of CDR for climate targets, a structured and inclusive debate on its development, and the design of specific incentives for the prioritized CDR technologies.

While the current lack of specific CDR measures may be due to the perception that they are costly or unpopular, together with fear of potential environmental side effects and difficulty in making carbon reduction attractive for industry, the authors find that the Paris Agreement’s provisions for international collaboration can be operationalized to provide a credible way forward. To comprehensively address CDR in the Paris Agreement, using existing instruments, the report suggests the use of cooperation mechanisms between countries to leverage carbon markets and results-based climate finance, and strengthening monitoring, review and verification (MRV) to mobilize CDR domestically and abroad in a transparent and consistent manner.

Examining the Paris Agreement’s definition of mitigation, the authors find that countries’ national climate contribution should be underpinned by transparent CDR deployment strategies, plans and policies. They find that, as with emission reductions measures, most CDR approaches will require effective financial incentives or regulation via government action both at national levels and at the global scale.

Limited acceptance and familiarity among civil society, as well as lacking clarity across international governance spheres relevant to CDR may presently be holding back progress on CDR. Minor adjustments and clarifications regarding pertinent provisions (under the UNCBD, the LC/LP, by UNFAO, IMO, UNEP, and others), may allow unlocking permissible and necessary activities.

Dr Axel Michaelowa, Perspectives’ senior founding partner, said: “Despite their long-term nature, net-zero targets pose tangible and immediate technical policy challenges, which require closer attention. We can learn from past climate policy instruments such as the CDM for building opportunities to address and resolve net zero targets issues for domestic and international implementation and collaboration.”

Matthias Honegger, lead author and Senior Consultant at Perspectives, said: “Society urgently needs to start developing a vision of a net-zero emissions future in order to identify critical steps and deliberately start moving in a direction that would be compatible with achieving the transformation required to get there. He mentioned that the policy planning process needed “an infusion of enthusiasm while defining pragmatic intermediate steps to ensure progress.”

Matthias Poralla, author and Junior Consultant at Perspectives, said: “Concerns over the sustainability and social desirability of negative emissions require early and careful deliberation processes for policy to earnestly and credibly address risks and sustainability concerns thus allowing for viable policy pathways.”

About NET-RAPIDO

NET-RAPIDO is a project implemented between 2018 and 2021 by Mälardalen University, Perspectives Climate Research and Climate Strategies, aiming to research on readiness, policy instrument designs, options for governance and dialogue aims to create a clear understanding of the opportunities, challenges and risks of negative emission technologies (NETs). The project is funded by the Swedish Energy Agency. Find out more here.

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