Climate change: Europe’s unfinished business

Former Costa Rican president challenges EU to think of the next generation, rather than the next ele

Climate action isn't primarily about targets, writes Figueres [Getty]

Well over half a million people in 2,000 communities around the globe marched last month to demand real action on climate change. That was an unprecedented scene. On the next day, several financial businesses announced they would no longer invest in the carbon intensive economy, but rather shift to invest in the new climate economy. Two days later a succession of world leaders pledged their support for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are doing so much damage to our world.

Now, Europe has the chance to show that there is substance behind its claims to be “ambitious” on climate change. This week, the European Council is expected to set out what action the EU will take to tackle climate change and modernise its energy systems between 2020 and 2030.

What does real action mean for Europe? It starts with speaking plainly about the obvious. Europe is not kicking its coal habit, despite having an emissions trading system. Three-quarters of its coal-fired power stations may still be burning in 2030. That does not look “ambitious”. The bloc’s significant gains in renewable energy are under threat as the fossil fuel industry fights back. The potential to make European homes more efficient and to cut reliance on Russian gas for winter heat is underutilised.

Europe’s future hangs on its decisions – but so does the rest of the world. Europe’s continuing emissions will affect our people, our wildlife, our fisheries, our coral reefs, in my own country of Costa Rica and everywhere else.

Inside Story – Marching for climate change

If the EU wants to tackle these real problems and demonstrate that it is indeed a leader, then the solutions it implements must be real as well.

Climate action isn’t primarily about targets; it is about confidence, momentum and investment, for which the targets serve as a motivator and indicator. Europe’s proposed 40 percent greenhouse gas reduction target by 2030 will not push Europe towards the kind of transformation from which we would all benefit.

Countries around the world look at the proposed 40 percent target with a sceptical eye. My own country, Costa Rica, aims for carbon neutrality by 2021, effectively eliminating our emissions entirely. The tiny Pacific nation of Tokelau has already done so. Developing nations need and deserve assistance in combatting climate change, especially because they are the ones showing where the real ambition now lies.

Europe is a wealthy continent. In the past it always took a proactive stance on tackling emissions. Today it has the potential to cut emissions by 55 percent by 2030. However compared with what is feasible and what developing countries are pledging, Europe’s present offer looks weak. That threatens progress in the UN climate process.

The current EU proposal calls for a 27 percent share of renewable energy by 2030, and 30 percent less energy use. These would virtually be reached by “progress as usual”. Feasible are 45 percent and 40 percent, respectively. Again, where is the “ambition”? Furthermore, without a binding framework at national level to implement such targets, experience shows that some member states will do little more than file reports to Brussels that are promptly forgotten.

Around the world, communities are recognising that coal is our number one climate problem. Even some of the poorest parts of the world are fighting coal and promoting renewable energy, such as in Palawan in the Philippines. Perversely, European policymakers seem blinded by the theoretical importance of the trading system, which, as things stand, is not delivering.

A more sensible approach to coal emissions might be to implement emission performance standards, which the UK for example has done, to ensure that the worst polluters stay off the system, while the rest participate in emissions trading to make compliance more efficient. Even the United States is ahead of Europe in its development of such an approach. China’s coal use is likely to peak within five years.

If EU leaders want to ensure Europe remains a prosperous and dynamic region in the future, they must achieve progress that isn’t defeated by environmental degradation. The New Climate Economy report is the most recent demonstration that decarbonisation is an intrinsic part of an agenda for jobs, prosperity and competitiveness, as well as a key component of energy security. It is far better to tackle the challenge head-on than to imagine that we will miraculously milk the last drop from a moribund energy and economic model and only then have the innovation, investment and industrial capacity needed to shift overnight to a better alternative.

The hundreds of thousands who marched worldwide on September 21 are seeking leadership, are calling out for inspiration, for a cause we can all rally behind no matter from what country or political colour. The climate impacts now materialising around our world affecting communities, nature and the oceans, are too serious to ignore. The science, the economics and the people are all making the case for policymakers to lead. European politicians need to think of the next generation, rather than the next election.

European Council, it’s your turn.

Jose Maria Figueres is the former President of Costa Rica, President of the Carbon War Room and Co-Chair of the Global Ocean Commission.