Net greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union are to be reduced by 90 percent by 2040 (compared to 1990 levels). This is the new climate target announced today, Feb. 6, by the EU Commission.

In line with the recommendations of the European Scientific Advisory Committee on Climate Change (ESABCC), the target is intended to be the intermediate step between the 55 percent cut planned for 2030 and the ultimate goal of achieving net zero emissions in 2050. The announcement comes as a first step toward the climate and energy policy package to be developed by the new European Commission after the June elections. In short, a legacy of the von der Leyen era that is meant to indicate, or rather reiterate, the EU direction on decarbonization. However, questions have arisen about how to achieve the result.

In fact, the Commission's communication, the Impact Assessment and the attached carbon management strategy place great emphasis on carbon capture and storage technologies, gas and nuclear. Meanwhile the desired 30 percent  cut in emissions for the agricultural sector (included in the draft) was removed from the final document, following protests in recent weeks.

"We need to make sure we have a balanced approach," said Commissioner Wopke Hoekstra. "The vast majority of our citizens see the effects of climate change, they want protection, but they are also concerned about their livelihoods."

Why a target for 2040?

The European Climate Act, which came into force in July 2021, establishes the European Union's commitment to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. To this end, an intermediate target is specified in the law, namely a 55 percent reduction in net greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. The legislative package Fit For 55 thus aims for this first target, which was, moreover, adjusted upward just over a year ago, with a new target of 57 percent.

The path between 2030 and 2050 could however not be left to chance. In fact, the Act required the Commission to set a target for 2040 within six months of the first Global Stocktake, i.e., the global review of the Paris Agreement implementation presented during COP28 in December.

Based on a detailed Impact Assessment, the Commission therefore presented on February 6 its recommendations for the adoption of a 90 percent emissions reduction target by 2040, compared to 1990 levels. This is, precisely, a "recommendation," which means that the climate target will have to be adopted by the next Commission, formed after the June 2024 elections.

Once adopted, the target will form the basis of the European Union's new NDC (National Determined Contribution), to be reported to the UNFCCC, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change by November this year.

How to reduce emissions by 90 percent? The role of CCS and nuclear power

To achieve a net 90 percent reduction in emissions, the European Union will need to deploy all the strategies at disposal to decarbonize its economy.

This starts, of course, with the energy sector, for which "fossil fuel consumption for power generation has to decrease by about 80 percent by 2040 compared to 2021 and coal will have to be phased out." The process of decarbonizing the energy system in the Commission's plans involves the use of a wide range of technologies. In addition to renewables, efficiency and storage systems, geothermal and hydropower, this also includes a number of solutions that are more controversial and, in some cases, strongly criticized by environmental groups, such as CCS and CCU (CO₂ capture, storage and utilization) systems, removal of carbon from the atmosphere and nuclear power.

Particular emphasis was placed on this last point with the launch on the same day, Feb. 6, of an Industrial Alliance to promote and accelerate the implementation of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), on which the opinion movement for a return to nuclear power is also focusing in Italy.

According to Greenpeace, which had already had the opportunity to view the draft document in the morning, modular reactors would present similar criticalities to conventional ones (safety risks, waste and high costs) and would not be supported by successful examples anywhere in the world. "The most advanced small modular reactor project, NuScale in the United States, has been canceled because of the costs involved. " the NGO writes.

Moreover, the European Scientific Advisory Committee on Climate Change had already expressed a similar opinion, stating that it did not consider nuclear power a useful solution to meet the EU’s 2030 climate goals due to the time and cost involved in building new power plants.

Another chapter relates to the transformation of industry, which will come through electrification of processes, moving away from fossil fuels, and the increasingly widespread adoption of circular economy practices. For many sectors, however, achieving the targets relies primarily on the massive use of CCS technologies. An approach that has not failed to draw sharp criticism on many sides.

“Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is wrongly put forward as a solution for all industrial emissions, when it should be focused on carbon emissions that cannot be prevented at source through other more cost-effective means. Such a heavy reliance on CCS does not only divert taxpayers’ money from the available technologies to decarbonise European industry in the timeframe needed, but also risks maintaining our fossil fuels dependency for the next decades”, the EEB (European Environmental Bureau) states in a note.

Failure on agriculture targets

Good, but not enough. In short, this was the reaction from the many associations and climate policy observers to the announcement of the new European targets.

"This is an important political decision that will have a strong impact on the future of the European Green Deal," comments Stefano Ciafani, national president of Legambiente, an Italian NGO. "But now Europe should take a further step forward and put in place an ambitious climate action that can achieve zero net emissions as early as 2040 by setting a timetable (2030 for coal, 2035 for gas and 2040 for oil) for the phase-out of fossil fuels”. 

"Now the ball is in the court of national governments and Italy's role will be crucial in this match. Our hope is that they will take on a more ambitious position as soon as possible, just like Germany and France, which together with 9 other countries (Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, Finland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal and Bulgaria) have already expressed themselves in favour of an ambitious target, crucial for a new European Green Deal."

For the European Environmental Bureau, intentions are good, but over-reliance on insufficient and expensive technologies (as CCS) and failure to address food system and agricultural sector emissions issues cast serious doubts on whether the targets can be met.

Dissatisfaction with the failure to set climate targets for the agricultural sector is also highlighted by the statement of the Italian think tank ECCO. "Climate change is a risk for all economic sectors," they write in a note, "but particularly for the agricultural sector, which is one of the sectors that would pay the highest price for inaction against climate change. Suffice it to say that the flood in Emilia-Romagna in 2023 caused nearly 10 billion euros in damages, to which are added billions related to the impact of various episodes of extreme weather over the peninsula and the damage due to periods of drought.  The agricultural sector accounts for more than 10 percent of European emissions, and while it is significantly affected by the impacts of climate change, it has so far contributed very little to reducing emissions. The European environmental agency estimates a reduction in emissions of only 4 percent in 2030 compared to 2005 under current policies."

“The agri-food sector can and must contribute to EU climate ambition,” adds Mathieu Mal, EEB's agriculture and climate policy manager. “ It is therefore highly disappointing to see another opportunity to set an ambitious target to bring the sector in line with overall climate targets pass by. This lack of ambition will not only hinder the EU’s efforts to tackle emissions and reach climate neutrality, but by failing to look at holistic long-term solutions, the EU fails to act on other areas impacted by our agri-food systems. Further delays and short-term concessions will ultimately harm EU farmers and agriculture, including threatening long-term food security.”


This article is also available in Italian / Questo articolo è disponibile anche in italiano


Image: Ryan Song, Unsplash


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