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View of the Eiffel Tower, Paris.
© S.Borisov/Shutterstock
10 March 2015 12:15

How ambitious is the EU’s offer to the Paris climate change talks?

Simon Evans


Simon Evans

10.03.2015 | 12:15pm
COP21 ParisHow ambitious is the EU’s offer to the Paris climate change talks?

The EU has set out its contribution to a new international climate change agreement, in advance of talks in Paris this December.

The EU pledge, known as an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), was submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on Friday and is the second  official submission, following first-placed Switzerland.

Carbon Brief runs through the key points from the EU’s offer and summarises reactions to the announcement.

The EU’s ambition for the world

The EU’s INDC is set out in a relatively brief three-page table repeating climate and energy targets for 2030 agreed by EU leaders last October. The headline is to reduce domestic EU greenhouse gas emissions by “at least 40%” by 2030, against a 1990 baseline.

The EU says this is in line with an existing EU objective to cut emissions by 80-95% in 2050 against 1990 levels. It also says the target is consistent with “the need for at least halving global emissions by 2050 compared to 1990”.

The EU’s more detailed  Paris Protocol, published on 25 February, says UN talks in Paris should set a long-term 2050 climate goal, as part of a legally binding climate agreement applicable to all countries. It proposes a  60% cut in global emissions by 2050 against a 2010 baseline.

This is consistent with  the latest science, which says global emissions should be between 40 and 70% below 2010 levels in 2050, reaching  net-zero between 2080 and 2100, if warming is to be limited to two degrees above pre-industrial temperatures.

The EU proposal is not consistent with a more ambitious global climate target of limiting warming to below 1.5 degrees, however. On Friday,  African ministers published the Cairo Decleration which backs a  1.5 degrees goal for Paris. This would  require a 70-95% reduction in emissions by 2050 and be net-zero by between 2060 and 2080.

The EU’s share of global ambition

Allocating fair shares of global climate effort is one of the most challenging tasks for the Paris talks. Historical emissions, today’s emissions, committed future emissions, ability to pay, per capita shares and many other factors can all be taken into account.

Miguel Arias Canete, the EU energy and climate commissioner, says the EU’s INDC “is our fair share of what has to be done to achieve the internationally agreed below two degrees target”.

However, the Climate Action Tracker, a group of climate scientists and policy experts, says the EU submission is “less ambitiousâ?¦ than the EU’s fair contribution” towards a two degrees target. WWF says the EU pledge is “thin on details and low on ambition”.

PWC, the accountancy firm, examines what it would take for the EU to deliver its pledge. It says it will require a “step change in decarbonisation”. The EU’s carbon intensity – the amount of carbon emitted for each unit of economic output – has been decreasing by 2% per year since 2000, PWC says. This rate will have to double to meet the 2030 target, it says: “In this light, 40% looks ambitious.”

Arguments around the ambition of the EU’s INDC are a repeat of earlier discussions, because the EU’s “at least 40%” target for 2030 has not changed since October.

EU transparency

The EU says China, the US and other wealthy countries should submit their own INDCs by the end of the month, “in a manner that facilitates their clarity, transparency and understanding”.

The EU’s submission has itself been criticised for a lack of clarity and transparency, however. A published draft of the EU offer said the headline “at least 40%” emissions reduction would include emissions from land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF).

NGOs and the UK government said this would have reduced the EU’s overall climate ambition because carbon absorbed by forests could be offset against reduced efforts in other parts of the economy. The EU’s Arias Cañete told RTCC there would be “no backsliding” in ambition.

Yet the final EU INDC defers the decision on how to include LULUCF into the 2030 target. It says:

“Policy on how to include Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry into the 2030 greenhouse gas mitigation framework will be established as soon as technical conditions allow and in any case before 2020.”

NGOs Oxfam and Carbon Market Watch say this leaves a question mark over the EU’s ambition and makes it harder for the EU to demand greater transparency from others.

Prior to publication of the final EU INDC, Climate Action Tracker said:

“The only way to avoid lack of transparency and accountability is to explicitly specify in an INDC the targeted economy-wide emissions reductions for all emissions excluding the LULUCF sector.”

The EU’s final submission fails this test. LULUCF is to be included within the 2030 target, the EU just hasn’t yet decided how to do it.

World Resources Institute (WRI), the US-based thinktank, says the submission is “solid”, but “the EU can go further”. In the run-up to Paris, the EU could explain how its approach to land use will avoid reducing ambition in other sectors, the WRI says. The EU could also set a 2025 target.

Increasing EU ambition

The EU INDC says it hopes to discuss with other countries ways to “collectively increase ambition” towards the two-degrees goal. The EU’s Paris Protocol says work should begin in 2016 to address the expected gaps between two degrees and the sum of national pledges.

The EU wants a regular five-yearly global review “to strengthen the ambition of these mitigation commitments consistent with the latest science”. The UK also wants a five-yearly ” ratchet” to track progress and raise ambition.

The EU’s “at least 40%” pledge offers the prospect of increased ambition, but few specifics. It explicitly rejects using a conditional target as a negotiating tool at Paris, to raise ambition from other parties. It tried to use this tactic at the failed climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009.

The EU says:

“There is no merit in proposing a higher ‘conditional target’ at the present time. Should the outcome of the negotiations warrant a more ambitious target, then the EU should be open to the use of international credits to complement domestic commitments.”

Question marks remain over ambition within the EU’s own carbon market, the EU emissions trading scheme (EU ETS). Climate Action Tracker says failure to remove surplus credits from the EU ETS could weaken the EU’s 40% target if unused, banked credits are counted towards future emissions reductions.

Plans to suspend surplus credits from the market and boost prices have been backed by MEPs, but are yet to be agreed by member states. Poland is leading a blocking minority against early implementation of the reforms.

A Paris climate deal will also not be enough to persuade the EU to stop giving free EU ETS allowances to industry, reports news website Carbon Pulse. Planned reforms will reduce, but not remove the allocation of free credits worth hundreds of millions of euros each year.


Thinktank E3G says the EU has “a habit of over-delivering and under-promising, which sells itself short”. It says Europe needs to be “courageous”, working with others to raise political ambitions in the run up to Paris.

Yet the EU political process and the divergent priorities of member states limit the potential for changes to the EU offer for Paris. Even so, progress is possible on EU ETS reforms, the terms of the “at least” offer and the details of EU treatment of land use emissions.

Progress in these areas could help bolster the EU’s diminishing influence at UN climate talks.

Main image: View of the Eiffel Tower, Paris.

Update 11/3 - We corrected the section on EU carbon intensity, which is decreasing not increasing.

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