EU climate clash looms as Parliament backs ‘bloody hard’ emissions cuts

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The European Parliament narrowly backed slashing the bloc’s greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent by 2030 — setting up a clash with member countries balking at such a deep cut.

The Parliament’s position, approved in a 352 to 326 vote on Tuesday (the vote count was released on Wednesday), is far above the 55 percent cut recommended by the European Commission. MEPs hope it will raise pressure on member countries, which are split over whether to back a hike to 55 percent compared to the current target of 40 percent.

“This is going to be bloody hard to do,” European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans told the Parliament on Tuesday. “We will ask sacrifices of everyone: industry, our citizens, the transport system, etc.”

The Climate Law package voted by the Parliament also called for exploring a legally-binding 2040 target for emissions, a negative emissions goal for after 2050 (meaning stripping CO2 from the atmosphere) and for climate neutrality to be binding on the national level.

While the differences are large, all sides claim they’re backed by science.

Jytte Guteland, a Swedish Socialists & Democrats MEP who is the lead lawmaker on the file, called on Parliament to back the 60 percent goal “in order to be in line with science.”

But skeptics of 60 percent are just as adamant that the people in white coats are on their side.

“We need to listen to science,” Peter Liese, a German lawmaker with the European People’s Party, told the Parliament on Tuesday. Later he announced the EPP would abstain from Wednesday’s vote on the rest of the Climate Law package. “We sincerely dislike the 60 percent and think it really endangers jobs.”

The same calls to follow scientists are likely when EU leaders meet next week to discuss 2030 targets for the first time, and again in December, when they’re hoping to agree on a final position.

Conflicting views

Couching the climate debate in terms of science lends ammunition to what is an intensely political issue — one that will require a massive increase in renewables and energy-saving measures, tougher emissions standards for cars and industry, as well as broadening climate requirements to sectors like aviation and shipping which until now have successfully avoided being included in such targets.

Policymakers are reflecting three years of youth-led protests that have urged them to “follow the science” and radically cut emissions.

“This vote shows that the European Parliament is listening to the science and the Fridays for Future movement,” Bas Eickhout, a Dutch Greens MEP and vice chair of the environment committee, said on Wednesday.

During Tuesday’s debate in the Parliament, the rallying cry of the youth movement was co-opted by dozens of MEPs, from Polish conservatives to Finnish leftists, who each claimed their preferred target — ranging from 40 percent to 65 percent — was justified by science.

But while all sides were calling on science, climate scientists are unambiguous that deeper emissions cuts are better.

The reason all sides can claim that they’re backed by science is that neither the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) nor the U.N. Environment Program Emissions Gap report delve into specific emissions thresholds for the EU — or any other country.

That opens the door to conflicting views over how much the bloc should do to comply with its requirements under the Paris Agreement to keep warming to well below 2 degrees, if not 1.5 degrees.

If anything, the U.N. report suggests the EU should cut by even more than 65 percent, especially if taking into account the bloc’s responsibility for driving up emissions in the past, said Oliver Geden, a senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

“The often-heard statement that ‘the science’ demands an EU emissions reduction goal of at least 65 percent by 2030 is not applicable,” said Geden. “The IPCC has always pointed out that it’s not a scientific question to determine the ‘fair share’ of individual states for global emissions reductions.”

The dearth of EU-specific analysis has led to calls to set up an independent scientific advisory council to inform Brussels policymaking; Parliament passed an amendment on Tuesday to that end.

Considering climate justice

“Science does not really say something about how emission reduction efforts should be divided across countries,” said Wendel Trio, director of Climate Action Network Europe.

While Europe hasn’t received unambiguous marching orders on how deeply it should cut, the IPCC has been clear about what needs to happen globally to give a chance of holding warming to 1.5 degrees: CO2 emissions would need to reach net zero by 2050, other greenhouse gases must reach net zero during the 2060s.

The IPCC has also defined the maximum amount of carbon the world can still release into the atmosphere — 580 gigatons.

The EU’s 2050 climate neutrality target is ahead of that requirement, but any emissions from the bloc eat into the overall carbon budget — something that comes at the expense of developing countries that bear less historic responsibility for climate change.

One clear difference between a 55 percent and 60 percent target is that, with the former, Europe will take up more of that global budget. That’s prompting many environmental campaigners to criticize the EU’s goals based on equity, not science.

“The way the global aspect of equity and climate justice is being systematically and completely ignored in the European debate is shameful,” Swedish youth activist Greta Thunberg tweeted on Tuesday.

Timmermans said the Commission’s 55 percent target was a compromise position on both science and justice. “The target is well founded in science,” he said. “It shows responsibility towards developing countries, but doesn’t take on an undue burden, given the ambition needed from other industrial nations. I think it’s the right target.”

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