Influential new report from Sandbag claims policies already in place to deliver 50 per cent cut in emissions by 2030, paving the way for increased ambition
Carbon emissions have hit a record high, most of the world's energy systems have made "almost no progress" in transitioning to greener technologies, and the UK could be heading straight for a 'no deal' Brexit - an outcome many fear would prime the country for rapid environmental deregulation.
So you could probably do with some good news right about now. Thankfully that comes this week from the team at climate policy NGO Sandbag, which yesterday released a new report revealing the EU is on track to halve its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, compared to 1990 levels, far exceeding official targets.
According to Sandbag's analysis, Europe already has the policies in place to deliver a 50 per cent emissions cut by 2030, when actions such as the coal phase out and major new policy initiatives like the Clean Energy Package are taken into account.
The power sector is an important driver of the carbon cuts, Sandbag explained, with the phase-down of coal power and rollout of renewables responsible for half of the EU's emissions cuts to 2030. The analysis released by the body this week is the first to take into account all announced coal phase-outs across the trading bloc, and suggests the bloc could comfortably overshoot the EU Commission's Long-Term Strategy modelling for a 46 per cent emissions cut by 2030, which was released in December.
"This report is a good news story, showing that the EU is already well on track to significantly overshoot its 2030 emissions reduction target," declared Suzana Carp, EU engagement lead at Sandbag.
The hope is the findings can shift the discussion around the trading bloc's 2030 'business as usual' trajectory - the pathway under current and planned policies - to support a 50 per cent target, rather than the EU's stated aim of delivering a 40 per cent cut in emissions by the end of the next decade.
The intervention comes at a crucial time. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres this week called on all countries to attend the UN's upcoming climate summit in September and bring with them more ambitious decarbonisation plans. The EU is debating whether to set a new long term net zero emission target for mid-century, which would likely also result in an increase in medium term targets for 2030. The bloc is divided on whether to adopt the new goal and revisit existing targets for the next decade. As such, advocates of bolder targets are likely to welcome further evidence that a halving of emissions can be delivered without additional policies or adverse economic impacts.
The report should also open the door for tougher ambitions to move beyond 50 per cent, Sandbag argued. "There have been so many additional policies agreed in the past three years, that the need for uprating the overall ambition has grown all the more necessary," it pointed out. Emissions reductions of up to 58 per cent by 2030 would be possible if further action was taken to accelerate coal phase-outs, improve energy efficiency, implement an economy-wide carbon price, and speed the rollout of electric vehicles for example. Even moderate upratings in the EU's climate ambitions would deliver faster emissions reductions, Sandbag suggested.
Dave Jones, European power analyst at Sandbag, said taking more ambitious action now will make decarbonisation cheaper in the long run. "Every day it seems that countries, cities and companies are al clamouring to promise more ambition," he said. "It's important that high-level EU climate commitments lead and not lag, so that climate policies can be implemented to provide meaningful emission cuts. To eventually get to net zero, the EU is back-loading effort. Near-term emission cuts will make it easier and less costly to eliminate emissions by the middle of the century."
After power, the next largest source of carbon savings under the analysis is industry and road transport, which each account for around 17 per cent and 19 per cent of total emissions cuts. Emissions in road transport are set to fall by at least a sixth between now and 2030, Sandbag forecast, thanks to measures to cut emissions from vehicles and push up EV market share to seven per cent. Under a 53 per cent or 58 per cent emissions cut, EVs' market share must rise to 13 per cent or 18 per cent by 2030.
The paper also makes clear that although more ambitious action is possible in many areas, strengthening the current policy landscape is far from plain sailing. Current decarbonisation progress in some areas is failing to even hit existing policy targets, such as goals for improving the energy intensity of the EU economy. According to Sandbag's business as usual forecast - as defined by current policies - the emissions intensity of GDP should be falling by 2.4 per cent a year. In reality, the historic rate of improvement for emissions intensity of GDP between 2005 and 2018 has been 1.7 per cent. To deliver a 58 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030, annual emissions intensity gains cuts need to almost double to three per cent. Energy efficiency improvements may be technically possible and shown to deliver net benefits to the economy, but they remain frustratingly difficult to unlock at scale.
Meanwhile, the paper also warns that even despite recent reforms to the EU's Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) a surplus of allowances is still likely to develop through to 2030 as industries decarbonise, pushing prices down and potentially slowing further progress.
And as ever, Brexit looms large over the policy debate. This week's analysis includes UK contributions under the existing framework, to allow for direct comparison to existing EU modelling. But, as Sandbag pointed out, "at the time of writing, there are very few clues what the UK will do" with regards to Brexit. Removing the UK's efforts from the EU climate policy equation may mean other Member States will need to bear more of the decarbonisation load, it warned. Some politicians have already warned that on balance the UK has been an advocate for bolder climate action within the EU. Its removal from Brussels could strengthen the hand of those countries that are more luke warm towards bolder long term emissions targets.
Nevertheless, the Sandbag report should be welcomed as a genuine Good News Story. It demonstrates clearly that coal phase-outs, twinned with green transport policies, energy efficiency efforts, renewables, and carbon pricing - all of which are increasingly shown to work and drive wider economic gains - can send the EU over and above its climate targets for the next decade. In the midst of too much global gloom, what's not to like?
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