How EU is leading global transition towards a safe, carbon-neutral world
An interview with Geneviève Pons, EU climate expert on European climate action leadership and relevance for Qatar
Q1. Madame Pons – You are a prominent climate action expert. Can you tell us more about your experience and the journey that led you to fight the good fight?
Thank you and it is a pleasure to speak to you today and share my thoughts about the importance and urgency of addressing climate change.
I have a long standing career with the European Commission, working extensively on issues pertinent to environmental protection and climate change and even participated in the historical joint Energy-Environment Council of 29 October 1990, which decided on the first EU-wide target for carbon emissions reduction. Then, I joined the cabinet of the President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, as the member in charge of the environment. In this quality, I chaired the numerous and tough cabinet meetings that led to the adoption of the Commission’s CO2 taxation proposal, prior to the Rio Summit of June 1992.
After leaving the European Commission, I took the lead of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) European office and now I lead Europe Jacques Delors, a think tank devoted to sustainable development. I am also co-head of Antarctica2020 and a member of Ocean Unite, coalitions of NGOs engaged in ocean protection.
Q2. Can you tell us more about the EU Green Deal?
The European Green Deal has been a long time in the making. When Jacques Delors left the European Commission in 1995, he left behind him a white book on his vision for the 21st century, with a chapter on a new development model to which I contributed. This new model of development has now evolved into the EU Green Deal.
The EU Green Deal is the EU’s project to make the EU the first carbon neutral continent by 2050. There are two major targets: climate neutrality by 2050 (ie net-zero emissions of greenhouse gas), and the intermediary goal of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030. It also includes targets for biodiversity, energy, transport, and agriculture.
That will require major transformations in all dimensions of society and the economy. To do so, the EU developed a precise timetable and the financial means to implement this EU Green Deal, which are crucial.
Q3. Why is the EU Green Deal relevant to Qatar and the rest of the world?
The EU Green Deal is not only a decisive project for Europe. I think it can and is serving as a point of reference and indeed inspiration for the rest of the world. Let’s not forget that the EU is one of the three largest economies in the world. Its potential in leading the transition towards a safe, carbon-neutral, resilient, and sustainable world is therefore tremendous.
We have recently witnessed the result of EU’s global leadership in action. In response to the EU’s commitment to achieve carbon neutrality by mid-century, many key countries pledged their own long-term net-zero targets. There are now over 60 countries who have committed to achieve net-zero emissions around mid-century, representing over half of the global GDP!
Q4. Why is tackling climate change so important and what is the EU doing in the field of climate action?
The world is already facing the devastating consequences of climate change: extreme weather events, sea-level rise, wildfires, floods, biodiversity loss and many others. Every part of the globe is affected. Europe witnessed severe flooding this summer resulting in loss of lives, but the GCC too is at risk with rising temperatures and water stress.
The Special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on Global Warming of 1.5C – which provides policymakers with regular scientific assessments on climate change – was very clear. Limiting global warming to 1.5C, as the safer side of the Paris Agreement temperature limit, would reduce challenging impacts on ecosystems, human health and well-being provoked by climate change. Scientists estimate that we have already increased the temperature by around 1.1C since the beginning of the 20th century. We are in a climate emergency!
This is a defining challenge for Europe and the world. The way we respond – or choose not to respond – to climate emergency is already shaping our political systems. The issue of climate protection was one of the central themes in the EU election campaign of 2019 and the new European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, elected in the summer of 2019, made climate protection a central element of her work program.
Q5. How is the EU leading climate action globally?
We cannot tackle climate change alone. The EU represents a small and decreasing share of global CO2 emissions. As we are legally bound to attain our goal of being climate neutral by 2050 under the new EU climate law, CO2 pricing instruments have to strengthened and expanded domestically. The price of a tonne of carbon under the European Emissions Trading System (ETS) jumped to 69 euros per ton one week after COP26. If all European industries have to pay a high price to reduce their emissions, we are at a high risk of carbon leakage. This will not help solve the global climate change problem since carbon intensive production will just move somewhere else.
This is the reason why the EU’s “Fit for 55” climate protection package contains a Carbon Border Adjustment proposal (CBAM), very similar to what “Europe Jacques Delors” had proposed in June 2020.
The US tends to understand the logic behind CBAM, but that doesn’t mean they accept it. The initial reaction from China and India was “that’s protectionism!”. This is not an unusual initial reaction. But since then, I note that comments have been quieter. It is important to know that China already operates its own emissions trading system, albeit limited to electricity generation until now and with a price that is still very low but rising. And at COP26, all countries recognised the need to accelerate efforts.
However, COP26 was also marked by a rise in tensions between developed, emerging and developing economies, in a context of asymmetrical effects of the Covid crisis on economies and societies across countries. Against this backdrop, it is in the EU’s interest to actively engage with the international community on the broader issue of reconciling global trade and sustainability. The EU is also increasing the financial and technical engagement with international partners on the energy transition, starting with least developed countries.
Q6. How do you assess the results of COP 26?
Overall, the agreements adopted at COP26 in Glasgow do not measure up to the urgency of the climate challenge we are currently facing. Yet they show progress in the right direction. One of the most encouraging step forward is the pressure put on parties in the Glasgow Climate Pact as regards climate mitigation. Indeed, the Pact urges parties to update or submit new NDCs towards stronger targets before COP27 in 2022 where applicable. This is also the first time that a Paris Agreement decision mentioned fossil fuels and coal, which are the main contributors to climate change emissions. This inclusion sends a clear message to investors and governments to stop funding these types of energy, starting with the most carbon intensive ones.
The role of Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries in accelerating the global fossil fuel phase out and the development of renewable energies is key, given their share in global fossil fuel production. But their interest is high too, given the multitude of climate change challenges faced in the region (heat waves, water scarcity, sea level rise).
Joining the Global Methane Pledge launched by the EU and the US in September 2021 is a major step forward for these countries. Indeed, methane is about 84 times more powerful at warming the climate than CO2 over the short term. Yet methane emissions have increased more than eightfold between 1990 and 2012 partly due to the development of natural gas. The pledge therefore aims to reduce these emissions at global level by 30% by 2030 compared with 2020 levels. This could have a significant impact on slowing down global warming and we need all hands on deck to make it happen.
The Glasgow Pact also calls for increased efforts from all parties to raise ambition on climate finance, adaptation and the loss and damage caused by climate change. Indeed, supporting low-lying coastal and island nations must now be a priority. If these countries fought hard to incorporate the limit to 1.5C degrees of global warming in the Paris Agreement back in 2015, alongside NGOs – including WWF whose European Policy Office I was heading at the time, it is because this is a matter of life and death for them. As the window to reach this global target is rapidly closing, it is time for governments to take bold action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and secure a safer world for all.