Politics and finance dog EU climate zero efforts

Brussels - Momentum is growing across Europe toward a mid-century target for climate neutrality that UN scientists say the world must embrace to avert catastrophe.

But experts say the 28 EU countries must accelerate measures on many fronts once they set the goal of emitting no more greenhouse gases than they absorb by 2050.

They insist that "climate neutrality" is achievable, but only provided there is political will and trillions of euros in investment for a major technological revolution.

Ursula von der Leyen put the mid-century target at the top of her programme to the European Parliament before it confirmed her on Tuesday as the new European Commission president.

"I want Europe to become the first climate-neutral continent in the world by 2050," von der Leyen told the assembly, eliciting strong applause.

Last year, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that temperature rises must be capped at 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels to avoid an upsurge in killer heatwaves, droughts and superstorms.

The IPCC said by far the safest route to the cap is an immediate, drastic reduction in fossil fuel use, with emissions peaking in a few years and reaching net-zero by 2050.

Von der Leyen told MEPs that, as part of a "Green Deal for Europe" in her first 100 days in office, she would push to enshrine the 2050 target in law.

The former German defence minister effectively added urgency to achieving a target set last November by the commission, the EU's executive arm.

But von der Leyen faces pressure for even more decisive action from the influential Greens who see her centre-right party as too close to old-guard industry.


- 'Politically difficult' -


Not only did the Greens fail to endorse her for president, they are pushing for a greater role in EU policymaking by highlighting her slim majority in the assembly.

Support for the 2050 goal has gained momentum since European elections in May, when climate change fears helped the Greens win many new seats.

At a summit last month, 24 EU countries endorsed the carbon neutrality goal. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Estonia balked, but EU officials predict all will be on board by the end of the year.

Poland and Hungary highlighted concerns about how to finance the transition, complaints that will dog decision-makers as they draw up the next seven-year revolving EU budget.

Analyst Frank Rijsberman told AFP that the 2050 goal "is still politically difficult because there is a lot of investment that needs to happen."

Von der Leyen echoed Rijsberman when she stressed the importance of private financing to make up for insufficient public funding.

She proposed creating a "sustainable" investment plan and repurposing parts of the European Investment Bank to unlock one trillion euros ($1.12 trillion) in the next decade for climate projects.

Maros Sefcovic, the outgoing commission vice president, estimated recently that the EU would need more than 500 billion euros investment annually to hit the 2050 target.

The Slovak said the barrier to investment is not the availability of funding but the "marketability and scalability" of innovations.

Rijsberman said renewable energy sources like solar and wind are now both technologically feasible and increasingly "commercially attractive".

But the head of the Global Green Growth Institute in Seoul said the private sector is still cautious about investing in renewable energy and new technology like electric cars.

Yet, Rijsberman said, there are encouraging signs.


- Avoid 'lost decade' -


Pension funds in Denmark are now investing in wind energy, both at home and abroad, he said.

Britain has spawned a profitable industry building wind turbines in the country's northeast, helping it slash reliance on coal.

Among the looming challenges, Rijsberman said, governments will have to write massive unemployment and retraining cheques for workers who lose jobs in coal mines and auto factories.

Laurence Tubiana, an architect of the Paris climate deal, urged EU countries to ensure the "right investments and policies are in place" for 2050 or risk a "lost decade".

The European Climate Foundation, which she now heads, calls for rolling out investments quickly to account for the long lead times in sectors such as electrical infrastructure.

Citing positive changes in EU industry, Tubiana said there are innovative frontrunners looking at producing "zero-carbon aluminium, steel, gas, and automobiles."

In order to reach the 2050 target, von der Leyen urged cutting carbon emissions by 50 percent, if not 55 percent, by 2030.

This is higher than the 40 percent the EU has pledged by that date, compared to 1990 levels, under the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Renewable energy

EU figures show the bloc's 28 nations plus non-EU Iceland emitted 4,333 million tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2017, a 23.5 percent drop since 1990. Yet GDP increased 58 percent in that period.

Europe accounts for about 10 percent of global emissions.

By Lachlan Carmichael