The European Union has already invested so much of its political capital into the green transition that a failure to fulfill its promise to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 would severely damage its legitimacy. The Green Deal is not just one of many EU projects. It is the Union’s new defining mission. Jean Pisani-Ferry, a senior fellow at Bruegel, a Brussels-based think tank provides his views on the Project Syndicate website. Do you agree?
Europe’s New Green Identity | by Jean Pisani-Ferry
Most countries’ flags are multicolor. Together with red-flagged China, the blue-flagged European Union is one of the few monochrome entities. Not anymore, apparently: the EU’s new defining project colors it green. At a meeting in mid-December, the leaders of all EU countries except one (Poland, not the United Kingdom) officially endorsed the goal of achieving climate neutrality – zero net emissions of greenhouse gases – by 2050.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wants to go further. Next March, she plans to introduce a “climate law” to ensure that all European policies are geared toward the climate neutrality objective. She wants member states to agree next summer to cut emissions by about 40% between 2017 and 2030. She also proposes to allocate half of the European Investment Bank’s funding and a quarter of the EU budget to climate-related objectives, and to devote €100 billion ($111 billion) to supporting regions and sectors most affected by decarbonization. If non-EU countries drag their feet, she intends to propose a carbon tariff.
Grand plans for a distant future rightly elicit skepticism. For leaders facing reelection every four or five years, a 2050 objective is hardly binding. A battle is to be expected: opposition by fossil fuel-producing member states, energy-intensive sectors, trade-sensitive industries, and car-dependent households will be fierce. The EU has already invested so much of its political capital into the green transition, however, that a failure to deliver would severely damage its legitimacy. The Green Deal is not just one of many EU projects. It is the Union’s new defining mission.
Let us therefore assume that the EU commits to von der Leyen’s plan. Will it work?
Relative to what other big emitters have agreed to do, the proposed EU target is commendably ambitious. Yet it falls short of what is needed to safeguard the world’s climate. To prevent the rise in temperature from crossing the safe threshold of 1.5º Celsius, future global cumulative emissions must be limited to about seven times the current level. At prevailing emission levels (which are still rising), humanity’s total carbon budget will be exhausted in seven years.
The additional carbon budget the EU is setting itself with its super-ambitious plan amounts to roughly 15 years of current-level emissions (somewhat less if efforts are front-loaded). Given that developing countries should be allocated a proportionally larger budget than advanced economies, global emissions would remain far too high even if all countries suddenly emulated the EU. The sad truth is that the 1.5º target is already out of reach, and the EU’s laudable plan is a bare minimum.