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COP24: Europe looks to fill the leadership void left by the U.S.

Delegates in the hallway before the opening plenary of the 24th U.N. climate talks in Katowice, Poland. Image by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth.

  • The withdrawal from the Paris Agreement of the United States — the world’s second-biggest CO2 emitter and also its main source of climate funding — has left the global community without a clear leader on climate action.
  • The European Union has emerged as a potential successor, following the publication of proposal that aims to see the bloc go carbon-neutral by 2050.
  • But observers say the EU’s own targets need to be more aggressive, while the union’s chief says other countries will also need to step up their own climate goals.
  • There are also concerns that the EU’s 2050 carbon-neutral plan relies heavily on so-called renewable gas, a source of methane — a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.

KATOWICE, Poland — Three years ago, then-U.S. President Barack Obama was instrumental in rallying the international community behind a landmark climate deal in Paris.

He managed to push through grueling negotiation process by brokering a bilateral deal between the United States, the world’s second-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, and China, the biggest, to pave the way for the historic global agreement.

Fast-forward to today, and the U.S. position on human-driven climate change has shifted radically under the administration of President Donald Trump, a staunch climate denier who believes global warming is a Chinese hoax and who continues to undermine the climate policies of his predecessor.

In 2017, Trump announced he was withdrawing the U.S. from the 195-nation agreement on climate change reached in Paris in 2015. And this year, the U.S. State Department is using the United Nations climate summit in Katowice, Poland, to promote fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

The U.S. hosted a side event at the summit on Dec. 10 to “showcase ways to use fossil fuels as cleanly and efficiently as possible.”

The event was largely seen as a joke, with Dan Lashof, the director of the World Resources Institute (WRI) U.S., saying “this sideshow in Poland would be laughable if the consequences of climate change weren’t so deadly serious.”

Two days earlier, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait blocked the conference from adopting a key report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which warned that the world has just 12 years left in which to cut global carbon emissions by half to prevent catastrophic global warming that will have severe impacts on populations, food supplies and natural systems.

The four countries did that by refusing to accept that the climate summit should “welcome” the IPCC report, preferring the blander “noted” instead, in a clear rejection of what the delegates from the other countries wanted.

This radical shift in position has left the rest of the world wondering who will fill the U.S.’s oversized shoes as the leader in climate action.

Prior to Trump’s June 1, 2017, announcement withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, the United States had pledged the greatest amount of funding of any country to fight climate change: $3 billion, double the second-highest pledge, made by Japan. That hefty loss in potential funding and carbon reduction potential is compounded by the fact that the U.S. continues to be a major emitter of carbon dioxide.

Delegates from countries around the world are now trying to find ways to fill in that gap as they meet for the latest climate summit in Katowice. The expected outcome is a global agreement on how to implement the Paris Agreement made three years earlier.

There’s an extra sense of urgency at this year’s climate conference as it comes on the heels of a string of gloomy scientific reports, not least from the IPCC.

For a while, it appeared as though industrial powerhouse China would step up to fill in the climate leadership role abandoned by the U.S., with President Xi Jinping making a bold statement last year that Beijing would take “a driving seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change.”

But China has continued to invest heavily in fossil fuel abroad, pumping money into coal projects across the world through its Belt and Road initiative throughout Southeast Asia and Africa. A quarter of coal plants in the planning stage or under construction outside China are backed by Chinese state-owned financial institutions and corporations, according to research by the Institute For Energy Economics And Financial Analysis (IEEFA), a U.S.-based think tank.

Chinese banks and investment agencies have committed more than $21 billion to developing 31 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired capacity in a dozen countries, and an additional $15 billion is on offer to support projects that would generate 71 GW in 24 nations, for a total of more than 101 GW, the IEEFA found.

As a result, people are looking elsewhere for the global leadership needed to guide the rest of the world into more ambitious climate action — and some wonder whether the European Union could fit that role.

Donald Trump speaking to supporters at a rally in Phoenix, Arizona. Trump has announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

‘You must do more’

The European Commission last month presented a strategic vision on how the EU could achieve climate neutrality — that is, net-zero carbon dioxide emissions — by 2050. The vision calls for investing in realistic technological solutions, empowering citizens, and aligning action in key areas such as industrial policy, finance and research, all the while ensuring social fairness for a just transition.

This would make the EU the first major economic bloc to embrace this goal.

Elina Bardram, the head of the EU’s negotiating team at the U.N. climate talks, said the union was looking to adopt the 2050 carbon-neutral goal because of the recent IPCC special report.

“We feel we are responsible to respond to the latest science which is screaming to us, saying you must do more,” she said at an event in Katowice organized by the German policy think tank Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES).

By setting such an ambitious target, the EU hopes to spur other countries to follow, Bardram said. “The EU intends to and wants to remain a global climate leader, but we can only lead if others follow,” she said.

But some are skeptical about the EU’s readiness to take on the mantle of climate change leader. Its Nationally Determined Contribution under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is not in line with limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), much less the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) threshold deemed necessary to thwart catastrophic climate change, according to a new report by the Climate Action Tracker.

“The EU as a whole has to do more and can do more,” said Hanna Fekete from the Germany-based NewClimate Institute.

A recent study in the journal Nature Communications projects the global temperature will increase by more than double the 1.5-degree threshold if the rest of the world follows the EU’s example.

Ulriikka Aarnio, international climate policy coordinator at the Climate Action Network Europe, said the EU and its member states needed to ratchet up their short-term climate goals, especially on the heels of the IPCC report.

“We need the EU to answer [the IPCC report] convincingly,” she said, adding that the 2050 carbon-neutral vision was laudable but should be expedited. “We want to see something similar in the short term because this is what makes or break, which is action now.”

Bardram said that even if the EU ramped up its climate targets, it wouldn’t mean much if other countries didn’t follow suit. “The EU will do our utmost, but the EU today only accounts for 10 percent” of global carbon emissions, she pointed out.

To get other countries on board with more ambitious climate goals, the EU is using the second week of talks at Katowice to present its 2050 vision during ministerial discussions on what can be done to move forward collectively in a meaningful way.

“If it doesn’t happen,” Bardram said, “we’ll really miss out on a key opportunity.”

Pascoe Sabido, a researcher and campaigner at the nonprofit Corporate Europe Observatory, talks in front of the European Union pavilion at the 24th U.N. climate talks in Katowice, Poland. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.

‘Gas heavy’

Pascoe Sabido, a researcher and campaigner at the nonprofit Corporate Europe Observatory, called the 2050 carbon-neutral vision a smoke screen to blur the reality that the EU’s energy policy still relies heavily on so-called renewable and decarbonized gas.

Renewable gas refers to natural gas derived from organic leftovers such as food waste, agricultural compost, and animal and plant-based material. It can also be derived from degradable carbon sources like paper, cardboard and wood. It’s considered “renewable,” or at least carbo-neutral, because it derives from organic sources that once absorbed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during photosynthesis.

But Sabido said this was a very misleading definition.

“Countries are saying gas is a clean fuel,” he said at the summit. “But in fact, gas is just a fossil fuel.”

What makes renewable gas particularly dangerous with regard to climate change, he said, is that it comprises largely methane — a compound that, as a greenhouse gas, is far more potent than carbon dioxide.

“People don’t realize that gas is made of methane,” he said. “Methane is a greenhouse gas about a hundred times worse for global warming than CO2. And unfortunately when gas is drilled for and transported and escapes into the atmosphere, it has a huge impact on the global atmosphere and global warming.”

The EU’s 2050 goal of being carbon-neutral invests heavily in making the switch from “regular” fossil fuels to renewable gas.

“There’s been a lot of talk in the last few days, weeks, months about the EU’s leadership,” Sabido said. “Go to any events here and you will hear [about the] EU’s 2050 climate strategy, but that hides a very dirty reality that the EU is hooked on gas. It’s spending huge amounts of public money, building new pipelines and infrastructure to keep us hooked on gas.”

It’s a message that hasn’t been lost on the region’s gas producers either. Eurogas, an industry association representing companies in gas wholesale, retail and distribution, said in a press statement that it welcomed the 2050 vision. Sabido said this wasn’t a surprise, given that the 2050 strategy was “gas heavy, to say the least.”

“I’ve seen the press release from Eurogas, the Brussels-based lobby group. They were delighted at the EU 2050 strategy,” he said.

“This means, in fact, up until 2050, we’re going to stay hooked on gas. Not just 2050, but beyond it, the European commission itself said so.”


Banner image: Delegates in the hallway before the opening plenary of the 24th U.N. climate talks in Katowice, Poland. Image by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth.