OPINION: European Union should lead on raising its goals to cut emissions

by Helen Mountford | World Resources Institute
Monday, 17 June 2019 08:04 GMT

European Union flags fly outside European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, April 10, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

This week's decision will have long-term economic consequences for Europe and send ripples well beyond its borders

When it comes to climate change, citizens are increasingly clear in their demand that European leaders should step up their game. The youth strikes spreading across Europe deserve a lot of credit, with the most recent win coming when Britain pledged to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But the “green surge” in last month’s EU parliamentary elections shows mounting concerns about the climate crisis span all ages.

As the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter behind China and the United States, the European Union has historically been instrumental in providing global leadership, including securing the historic Paris Agreement.

The EU Council meeting this week will be a watershed moment to test Europe’s climate leadership. Will leaders listen to the demands of their citizens and commit to strengthen the EU’s 2030 target under the Paris Agreement and set a goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2050? Or will they shirk their responsibilities and leave future generations, the next wave of politicians, and other countries to pick up the baton?

Whatever they decide will have long-term economic consequences for the bloc and will send ripples well beyond Europe’s borders. European leadership will be critical to inspire other countries to step forward with more ambitious plans, while its absence could be used as an excuse for other countries to delay or tamp down their own efforts to tackle the climate crisis.

Indeed, the world is watching what the EU brings to the upcoming UN Climate Action Summit which the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is convening this September.  

Even more importantly, the EU has good economic reasons to adopt a more ambitious target for 2030 and to set a clear course for climate neutrality by 2050. These goals are both achievable and beneficial.

The latest evidence from the New Climate Economy shows that bold climate action could deliver $26 trillion in global economic gains to 2030, new and quality green jobs, and avoid as many as 700,000 premature deaths from air pollution in 2030 alone. Business and financial sector leaders are calling for clear, long-term policy signals to guide their investments and drive innovation, and this would provide it.

Making the right choice now has the power to reinvigorate Europe’s environmental leadership and boost economic growth. Inaction, meanwhile, carries very serious downside risks: More frequent and severe extreme heatwaves, storms, flooding and wildfires.

Europe is well-positioned to take on more ambitious targets. Between 1990 and 2017, Europe reduced its emissions by 22%, with a decrease in all the EU’s economic sectors, except for transport.

The European Commission estimates that when currently agreed legislation is fully implemented, the EU will already lower its emissions by 45% by 2030. The European Parliament has voted 3-to-1 in favor of ramping up this target to at least 55% to better align with reaching climate neutrality by mid-century, and now it is up to the European Council to confirm this.  

Transforming the energy sector has been the key to plummeting emissions, and it will be no surprise that reaching a climate-neutral economy will require further accelerating the renewable energy transition.

To reach net-zero emissions by 2050, Europe’s renewable energy generation will need to increase by 80%. To get there, the European Commission has proposed investing a quarter of the EU’s budget in the fight against climate change and the implementation of a carbon-neutral future. This is without question a major investment, but one that will pay off.

Going climate neutral could attract up to $339 billion (€300 billion) of annual investment by 2050, boosting the EU’s economy by up to 2% a year. These impressive figures do not reflect the significant benefits European citizens would secure from lower electricity bills through enhanced energy efficiency and cheaper renewables and avoiding the human and economic costs of global warming, such as extreme weather events. 

Seem too good to be true? It’s not. Consider how since 1990, Europe’s economy has grown by 54% while greenhouse gas emissions have decreased by nearly a quarter. Building a low-carbon economy has already created 4 million new jobs in Europe. And as the transition continues, it will bring more jobs, growth and a healthier environment, including better air in Europe’s cities and towns.

Setting a 2030 goal that aligns with a zero-carbon pathway would also cut the bloc’s dependency on energy imports by up to 70%, strengthening the EU’s geopolitical and trade position.  

It is vital for the European Council to rally behind a stronger 2030 climate target that aligns with a carbon-neutral future. A decisively pro-climate decision this week will accelerate private sector investments in the clean energy economy and will help secure a stronger, more sustainable economy for European citizens and the world.

This is a defining moment that will show us all whether Europe is still a global climate leader.