A touching speech by a teenage activist. An ambitious pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A breakthrough agreement by world leaders to rein in rising global temperatures. These are not the key takeaways from the recent COP26 in Glasgow, but a mishmash of the last 30 years of global summits and pledges on climate change. Perhaps this is beginning to sound familiar: the global community is on the brink of catastrophe and this year’s UN Climate Change Conference is the last chance to stop it.
It is easy to become cynical of these international conferences, even though climate change remains one of the biggest collective problems for the international community. Was the recent COP26 summit in Glasgow any different?
For the first time in the history of UN climate agreements, the Glasgow Climate Pact referenced ‘coal’ and confirmed the commitment of nearly 200 countries to ‘phase down’ its use. Young urbanites from Brussels or San Francisco might raise their eyebrows and shrug off this accomplishment as old news. After all, didn’t we all agree that coal is finished?
Far from it. For all its damaging effects on the environment, coal accounts for close to 30% of global energy consumption. All fossil fuels combined make up to 80% of the global energy mix annually by providing relatively affordable and stable energy supply. Even in the EU, coal and lignite are still in everyday use; this will be a fact until at least the mid-2030s.
Completely phasing out the likes of coal is necessary but extremely costly due to pre-existing infrastructure and energy grids. The recent Glasgow Pact commitment to limiting coal on a global scale is important, as the developing world relies mostly on fossil fuels for their energy security and economic growth. Disappointment came from China and India, who led a coalition that watered down the language and replaced ‘phase-out’ with ‘phase down’ in order to reflect their entrenched national interests.
Divisions between Global North and Global South
This brings us to the ongoing friction between developing and developed countries on the climate front. Warning shots came just before the Glasgow summit when the group of Like-Minded Developing Countries issued a statement criticising rich countries for pushing the universal goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. The group posits that the developed Global North should raise their own ambition, fully decarbonise by the end of this decade and ‘leave the remaining atmospheric space for the developmental rights of the developing world’. It`s true thatone of the established principles of the UNFCCC is that international actors have different capabilities and responsibilities due to their respective social and economic conditions. However, shifting the onus primarily to developed countries with the expectation that they should completely restructure their economies in less than a decade is not only impossible to achieve, but also deepens dividing lines.
A case in point is the contested ‘loss and damage facility’ proposed by the G77+China group of developing nations, which would require rich nations to directly compensate poorer nations after severe climate events. Essentially, developed countries would be deemed as responsible for future natural disasters and stand ready to provide relief funding. This would turn into a downward spiral of endless claims and controversies between nations, with developing countries likely disincentivised to invest in adaptation measures as long as someone else is footing the final bill. Fortunately, this proposal was successfully blocked by the EU and US.
A point should be made on the political narrative and the debate on ‘climate justice’. The transatlantic political elite should be wary not to fall into a trap of its own making, where actual progress on climate change mitigation is replaced by claims for compensation or correction of historical injustices. A good example is the Foreign Minister of the island nation of Tuvalu, who received global attention when delivering his COP26 speech knee-deep in water. This narrative feeds well into our media-generated perception of the approaching climate cataclysm, but the facts tell a different story. Scientific research shows that in the past four decades, Tuvalu registered a net increase in land area of almost 3%, despite rising sea levels. We shouldn’t undermine the fact that many countries are, indeed, suffering disproportionately from environmental degradation or rising temperatures. However, cool-headed policymakers should be equidistant from both over-exaggerated victimisation and useless online virtue signalling when addressing climate change.
What developed countries should do is finally own up to an overdue promise to create a dedicated $100 billion fund to support less wealthy nations as they develop long-term measures for climate adaptation and sustainability. Although some Western countries committed to at least double their financial support by 2025, embarrassingly, there was once again no clear breakthrough at COP26 in finalising the full climate finance pledge.
The Glasgow summit might have left many disappointed due to the lack of ground-breaking headlines, but there were several overlooked positive spill-overs. More than a hundred nations supported the US-EU initiative on slashing methane emissions by 2030. A number of governments and automobile manufacturers joined a pledge on accelerating the transition to zero emissions from cars and vans by 2040 or earlier. We also saw a surprising joint declaration by the US and China on boosting climate cooperation over the next decade. Beijing remains an important piece in this complex puzzle, as China is the largest polluter globally (more than the US, EU, and India combined in terms of CO2 emissions). These small wins should not be underestimated and are a useful reminder of the true purpose of the COP summits.
Perhaps our perception of these much-anticipated UN Climate Conferences should be about expectations management. The British hosts sang the usual tune by raising expectations through the roof, despite the fact that they produced only a half-baked summit. Modern media cycles and activist rallies convince us that fundamental change should happen immediately, without mentioning astronomical costs related to this change or the fact that developing countries would be denied opportunities for raising their standard of living. Citizens should not be misled. These international fora remain a lowest-common denominator affair that promise big but enable many to free-ride during a slow and painful coordination process. The important thing is that they ensure the fleet of international ships sails in the same direction and holds a steady course.
For better or worse, this is the harsh reality of the international system.Dimitar Lilkov Climate Change Crisis Leadership
COP26 in Glasgow: A Climate Cup Half Full for the International Community
25 Nov 2021
On 24 March 2021 the German Federal Constitutional Court issued a decision with far-reaching consequences. The court ruled that the lack of sufficient specifications for further CO2 emission reductions from 2031 onwards in the German Climate Act ran contrary to the Constitution. In so ruling, the court narrowed the scope of action available to the legislator. Just a few weeks later a Dutch court went one step further, declaring that the oil and gas company Shell had violated its human rights obligations by failing to take adequate action to curb its contributions to climate change and global warming.
These are just two examples of the approach to climate change that has been adopted by some courts in the EU. They coincide with the EU’s very recent legislative initiatives to promote a uniform legislative package on climate change that could act as a vehicle for the European Green Deal. We are confronted with two mutually exclusive risks: regulative overreach and efforts that are too little, too late.
This policy brief proposes a balance between them. It demands that the legislator on the European level take a proactive role, especially in a time when climate change litigation is growing exponentially. The gap between legislative intentions and actions has been left unfilled for too long, so the courts are stepping in. To tackle a contemporary issue such as climate change, we have to find a solution to the old problem of the EU’s legitimacy and the extent to which member states have leeway in developing their own climate change policy.Climate Change EU Institutions Green Deal
Climate Litigation vs. Legislation: Avoiding Excessive Judicial Activism in the EU
22 Nov 2021
Eoin Drea Maria Spyraki Climate Change Green Deal
Thinking Talks Ep.2 with Maria Spyraki, MEP
Multimedia - Thinking Talks
19 Nov 2021
Our societies have been witnessing the effects of climate change, which requires a swift reaction in terms of adaptation and mitigation. The European Union (EU) presented its main instrument to address these challenges, known as the European Green Deal, in 2019. One could discuss the various measures it proposes and their applicability, but another equally important factor is how to communicate this ambitious plan to the European public.
The Czech public does not seem to recognise that climate change will have a substantial impact on the country, their local communities, and their own lives. In order to bring about genuine change to an issue that will undoubtedly and significantly alter our lifestyles, we need to mobilise public support. This publication looks into the opportunities and challenges that the Green Deal might bring. The authors are academics, economists, environmentalists, journalists, lawyers, politicians, and practitioners and together they present a comprehensive introduction to the Green Deal debate with a special emphasis on the Czech and European middle classes. Among them, Bedřich Moldan, Luděk Niedermayer, Ivan Štefanec, Merlene Mortler, Ladislav Cabada, Soňa Jonášová, Luboš Palata, Rumiana Stoilova, Ondřej Vícha, Lucie Tungul, Arjen Siegmann, Kateřina Davidová, Tomáš Jungwirth, and Aneta Zachová.Climate Change Green Deal Middle Class
The European Green Deal and the Middle Class
30 Sep 2021
In the last six months, energy prices have skyrocketed across the continent. European governments are already announcing multi-billon euro emergency measures in order to soften the blow for citizens. One of the reasons for the price surge is the growing demand for gas from industries and for power generation across the EU, as our economies bounce back from the pandemic. At the same time, Russia has limited its natural gas exports to Europe, mostly due to its dirty political game of applying pressure to Germany for the final greenlight on Nord Stream 2. Moscow’s antics and a cold winter in Europe could lead to unheated homes and even put ‘lives at stake’. This also means that inflation will continue to grow.
To make matters worse, the wind has literally stopped blowing in the sails of renewables – calm weather in the North Sea has meant very low renewable energy output. In parallel, the carbon price on the EU’s Emissions Trading System (ETS) has reached a record 60 euros per tonne of CO2. Ironically, the UK is desperately turning to dirty coal in order to provide electricity to citizens and industry.
All of this has prompted calls to speed up the EU’s transition, in order to reduce the bloc’s dependency on fossil fuels. However, before EU policy-makers push for even stronger (and costly) green commitments, it would be welcome to pause and reflect on what is actually happening.
It is easy to get lost in all the numbers about energy and climate, but a couple of basic facts are essential.
The first is that it takes a long time for new energy sources to displace existing ones. Unfortunately, fossil fuels are sticky and still account for 80 % of the world’s energy generation. Currently, solar, wind, and hydro are negligible chunks of the global energy mix. Even in the EU, their impact is overstated – more than half of the EU’s renewable sources are actually biomass (i.e., literally burning wood and crop waste). Not to mention that renewable energy from photovoltaics and wind is intermittent and challenging to store and transport.
Source: Adapted from Gates, B. ‘How to avoid a climate disaster’ (2021). Original data: Smil, V., ‘Energy Transitions’ (2018)
Second, if the EU has made the sustainable transition one of its top priorities, the rest of the world has not. The EU’s agenda on sustainability is laudable, but the bloc currently contributes less than 8 % of global CO2 emissions. Even with the hypothetical support of the US, the efforts to reverse rising temperatures by mid-century would be almost futile if the other major polluters don’t chip in.
The harsh reality is that for every coal plant we are closing, China is opening at least three new ones per annum. The EU’s coveted mechanism to impose a carbon levy (CBAM) on third countries is not planned to fully be in force until the late 2020s. Not to mention that Brussels will need to find trusted international allies on this subject in order to avoid trade wars and ensure such a mechanism bears fruit.
In the next decade, Europe’s energy demand is projected to increase, and we are on a risky path of making energy supply extremely volatile and costly. Regrettably, the biggest pain of this transition will be felt by the poorest households and certain middle-class families across Europe. Currently, there are more than 30 million Europeans who cannot pay their energy bills, and millions more that need to make monthly compromises in order to do so.
Even if the EU overachieves its current climate targets by 2030, this will be a tiny dent in the global fight against carbon emissions. This doesn’t mean that the bloc should sit on its hands and do nothing. Improving air quality, reducing biodiversity loss, and building a true circular economy should remain among the priorities for European policy-makers.
However, the biggest risk is that if the EU succumbs to all of the current green demands, the energy math simply won’t add up. We’ve decided to phase-out coal, which is needed, but in our devotion to a carbon-neutral future, we seem to have miscalculated the energy transition.
There is growing pressure on countries to snub nuclear, even though there is scientific proof that its risks are manageable and nuclear energy does not cause more harm, when compared to other clean energy sources. Germany’s decision to decommission its nuclear plants means that the country is losing one of its major sources of carbon-free electricity, and will become even more dependent on Russian gas. The same will most likely happen in the UK and Belgium.
This is a folly. The stigma on nuclear should be lifted and we shood collectively pool additional resources in exploring novel applications of this clean energy source. Brussels likes to see itself as the main agenda-setter on climate and environment, but the EU Treaties clearly define that sovereign member states make the ultimate decisions on their national energy mix.
The EU needs to have a more pragmatic and targeted approach to climate change. Let’s focus not only on ambitious legislation and climate targets, but also on becoming leaders and exporters of innovative green technologies. How many more billion euros are we willing to invest in solar panels and EV batteries with low efficiency gains, most of which are produced by slave labour in China? Most importantly, how does the continent intend to guarantee stable and affordable energy supply to households and industries in the short-term?
Try as it might, the European Union simply cannot repent for the climate sins of the rest of the world. The current energy price hike is just a precursor of the problems European politicians will have to confront in the next decade. They need to be overcome by prioritsing security of supply, innovation, and boosting the competitiveness of the European economy.
Not by prioritising dogmas and climate grief.
Dimitar Lilkov is a Research Officer at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies in Brussels. The views expressed in this piece are his own.Dimitar Lilkov Climate Change Energy Green Deal
The Inherent Flaws in the EU’s Green Ambitions are Already Showing
29 Sep 2021
Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, warming the planet eighty-six times as much as carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 20-year period, before decaying to CO2. While the focus to reduce climate change has rightly been placed on carbon dioxide, methane is the second most important greenhouse gas contributing to the warming experienced to date. It is also a major precursor of ground-level ozone formation, a pollutant that negatively impacts health and crop yields. Reducing methane emissions is indispensable in the fight against climate change, in line with the Paris Agreement’s goals, the European Green Deal and the EU Climate Law.
The most important question that we must answer is: why should we act now?
Climate actions to reduce methane are often included as ‘CO2 equivalents’ in national climate plans, like in commitments made by countries under the Paris Climate Agreement. But the impact of methane and carbon dioxide are not equivalent.
More than half of global methane emissions stem from human activity in three sectors: fossil fuels (35%), waste (20%), and agriculture (40%). In the fossil fuel sector, oil and gas extraction, processing, and distribution account for 23%, while coal mining accounts for 12% of global anthropogenic methane emissions. In this framework, it is important to proceed with an ambitious revision of our environmental legislation, such as the Effort Sharing Regulation and the Landfill Directive.
In the energy sector, imports account for over four-fifths of the oil and gas consumed in the EU, and most methane emissions associated with oil and gas are occurring outside EU borders. That’s why we must explore regulatory tools on fossil energy imports, develop methods with importing and partner countries to align our efforts, and secure a UN-based pathway on methane in 2021. In the meantime, we could proceed with bilateral agreements with these exporting partner countries.
A strong, independent, and scientifically rigorous Monitoring, Reporting and Verification (MRV) system is central to address methane emissions. It is necessary to provide credible data, identify issues and efficient measures, and assess the progress achieved. A mandatory MRV system would also improve Member States’ reporting to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). A robust MRV framework requires the EU to move away from voluntary approaches and adopt binding harmonised requirements.
Methane emissions are a global issue, and tackling their impact on the environment would require international cooperation, knowledge-building, and best-practices sharing. Given the fast development of monitoring and reporting technologies, the Independent Observatory could be a key institution in identifying and spreading innovations for MRV. Coal mines should also be covered by mandatory MRV for methane emissions, including abandoned mines.
We also have to support the establishment of an independent international methane emissions observatory, in partnership with the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), and the International Energy Agency (IEA).
A strong Leak Detection and Repair (LDAR) programme is a critical element of the EU’s strategy to reduce methane emissions and achieve the EU climate and environment goals. The scope should cover the full supply chain of fossil gas, oil, and coal, and include biogas and biomethane to ensure that all methane leaks from the energy sector are covered. It should be flexible enough to quickly adapt and capitalise on the upcoming innovative technologies expected to deliver environmental benefits and cost reduction, such as alternatives technologies sensing methane to be mounted on mobile platforms like trucks, drones, and planes.
In the agricultural sector, we should encourage innovation, and incentivise our industries to adopt the best practices and available technologies. We must ensure that proven, cost-efficient innovations are quickly implemented in the EU and integrated into EU agricultural policies. We must be particularly ambitious in the agriculture sector, in parallel with the Common Agricultural Policy.
By the end of 2021, the EU should – in cooperation with sectoral experts and the Member States – develop an inventory of best practices and available technologies to explore and promote the wider uptake of innovative, mitigating actions. These actions should have a special focus on methane coming from enteric fermentation. In this regard, we have to establish a framework which incentivises and rewards farmers, along with the entire value chain and especially frontrunners, for their efforts.
In the waste sector, the EU should continue to tackle unlawful practices and provide technical assistance to Member States and regions in order to increase the implementation of the existing legislation.We should also help the Member States and regions stabilise biodegradable waste prior to disposal and increase its use to produce climate-neutral, circular, and bio-based materials and chemicals, and divert this waste towards biogas production.
In the review of the Landfill Directive in 2024, the EU should consider further action to improve landfill gas management, minimise its harmful climate effects, and harness any of its potential energy gains. Closure and after-care procedures of landfill cells are key to reducing leakages, taking into account the entire life cycle of landfills. We must provide specific incentives, suited to each Member State’s conditions, to ensure separate collection of bio-waste to the maximum possible extent, including by encouraging public-private sector cooperation.
The immediate implementation of methane reduction measures on human sources of methane could reduce methane emissions by as much as 45% by 2030. Reducing methane now will avoid nearly 0.3 C of warming by 2045. That would vastly reduce the formation of and exposure to ground-level ozone. Most importantly, according to the global methane assessment report, each year after 2040, this would prevent globally:
– 255 000 premature deaths;
– 775 000 asthma-related hospital visits;
– 26 million tonnes of crop losses globally; and
– 73 billion hours of lost labour from extreme heat.
It is time to act now!
Maria Spyraki is an MEP (EPP – ND Greece) – Rapporteur of the EU Strategy to reduce methane emissions.Maria Spyraki Climate Change Energy
Reducing Methane Emissions – Time to Act Now
02 Jul 2021