In a recent communication responding to the Paris Climate agreement, the European Commission made clear that it does not intend to increase the level of its climate ambition until after 2030. This ignores the clear mandate the Paris Climate agreement provided to increase EU ambition from current levels at the 2018 facilitative dialogue and/or the 2023 stocktake.

Review of the targets is long overdue as research from Sandbag shows that Europe is set to massively over-deliver against its 2020 climate target. We project that domestic emissions will fall 30% below 1990 levels by 2020, creating a clear opportunity to step up the 2020 climate target (which is currently 20% below 1990, with offsets).

Moreover, we also find that the ambition of the current 2020 climate target and the proposed 2030 targets remain inadequate to deliver the 2050 goals agreed under a 2 degree temperature goal, let alone the more ambitious temperature goals agreed in Paris (well below 2 degrees with an aspirational goal of 1.5 degrees).

If Europe’s targets are not increased, it risks failing to honour the Paris agreement and squandering its political capital for future negotiations. Here we explain why ambition must increase.

Uncertainty looms large over Europe’s post-Paris climate ambition (Photo: Aitor Aguirregabiria)

1. The EU is already beating its 2020 emissions targets

EU carbon emissions are falling faster than the cap, contributing to an increasing surplus on the Emissions Trading Scheme and targets increasingly out of step with reality. Our modelling shows that Europe is on track for a 30% cut in economy-wide emissions by 2020 relative to 1990 – overshooting its target by 50%. The EU should therefore look to increase its targets as soon as possible or risks losing political influence over other nations as momentum for climate action increases globally.

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Progress towards reducing emissions comparing Member State and Sandbag forecasts


2. The 20% by 2020 target was never credible

Back in 2011, the European Commission published the 2050 Low Carbon Roadmap, laying out the cost-effective pathway to cut domestic emissions by 80% in 2050 relative to 1990 levels. The Roadmap indicated that the first milestone was to cut European emissions by 25% in 2020 relative to 1990 levels. Europe’s 2020 climate targets were never aligned with that milestone. It also revealed that Europe’s ETS emissions would need to be roughly 90% below 1990 levels by 2050, for sectors covered by the scheme to deliver their contribution towards the 2050 climate goal. A linear trajectory consistent with that goal would require a 2.4% linear reduction factor in the ETS from 2021, not the 2.2% currently proposed by the European Commission.


3. Currently proposals are insufficient to align the cap with emissions

Some have argued that the introduction of a Market Stability Reserve (MSR) represents a de facto increase in the ambition of the European cap that brings Europe closer to a Paris-compatible trajectory. We reject this argument on the basis that it does not change the volume of allowances in the legal cap and there are no guarantees that the MSR parameters will not be relaxed in the future. In short, if Europe wants political credit internationally for extra ambition, it needs to cancel the allowances stored in the MSR, not save them up for potential use in the future.

Europe has several options for increasing its 2020 targets with minimal impact on the European economy:

  • Allow spare allowances in the EU Effort Sharing Decision to expire in 2020,

  • Cancel 1.5 billion allowances from the Market Stability Reserve at the end of 2020

  • Adopt a stronger 2030 target through a stronger EU ETS cap.

The persistently low carbon prices in the EU ETS also provide a political window of opportunity to increase climate ambition by adopting a stronger ETS cap.

After the recent optimism of Paris, it would be deeply cynical for Europe to keep banking the overachievement of its 2020 targets against future targets, and leaving its so-called flagship climate policy to lay idle. Rather than kicking the problem of higher ambition into the long grass, Europe should be seizing this moment to reassume the mantle of climate leadership.

Read the full briefing here, Honouring Paris.