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What is a “fair” contribution of the EU to the 2°C limit?

EU policy framework (c) Thinkstock photos
Percentage

40% emission reductions by 2030 is not enough

A greenhouse gas reduction target for the EU in 2030 would have to be in the order of 50% or more (with a large range) below 1990 to be compatible with the EU’s goal to limit global temperature increase to 2°C.

Since 1996 the EU has repeatedly emphasised its commitment to help limit global temperature increase to below 2°C. In order to keep this goal within reach, currently increasing global emissions need to reach their peak this decade and start declining at a significant pace.

What is the “fair” contribution of the EU to achieving this global goal? There is no universal interpretation on what is fair, it always depends on the perspective. Research has analysed many of such different perspectives as different “effort sharing approaches”.  

For the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and in related studies, we, together with Michel den Elzen from Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL), summarised many available effort sharing studies and found that developed countries would have to adopt targets of 25% to 40% below 1990 in 2020 and 80% to 95% in 2050 in order to be in line with the 2°C limit. These values have been used widely as a benchmark on what is fair. For example, the EU agreed on a long-term target for 2050 of 80% to 95% below 1990. Some countries have used these ranges to set their domestic targets, e.g. Norway, South Korea and Mexico.

A discussion has emerged on the appropriate greenhouse gas reduction target for the EU in 2030. Several current studies are now relevant:

  • In a new paper we updated the analysis for the upcoming IPCC report and analysed over 40 studies that make these effort sharing calculations. This paper presents results for ten global regions consistent with the regional definitions of the IPCC, which unfortunately split the EU into two regions. The group of OECD countries  would need to adopt targets of 33% to 74% and Eastern European countries & Russia by 52% to 69% below 1990 in 2030. An approximate value for the EU as a whole would be in the order of more than 50% below 1990 in 2030.
  • In a recent study, we used our own model and applied a range of principles to the global distribution of efforts in reaching the 2°C limit. According to these calculations, an indicative ‘fair’ EU contribution would be a reduction of EU greenhouse gas emissions by around 49% (median of a full range from 39% to 79%) by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.
  • The Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) presented a study, that calculated an approach to share costs in such a way that the impact on GDP is equal among all countries. This results in a target for the EU of 45% to 47% below 1990 in 2030.

The spread of the results is large, because interpretations of what is fair vary considerably. The effort sharing approaches that require the least reductions from the EU (and developed countries in general) are those that are based on the costs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In such an approach, the EU would benefit as reducing emissions in developing countries is considered to be less costly compared to in the EU. These least ambitious targets are in the order of 40% to 47% for the EU. On the other end of the spectrum are proposals that put significant emphasis on historical greenhouse gas emissions and economic capability to reduce emissions. The EU scores very high on both indicators. These approaches, e.g. one proposed by developing country researchers, result in near zero (100% reduction) or even negative emission targets (more than 100% reduction) for the EU already in 2030. Such stringent targets can only be achieved by purchasing emission reductions from abroad in addition to reducing domestic emissions.

Even though many targets can be viewed as fair contribution to 2°C: A 40% target is only just at the least ambitious end of that spectrum. A 50% target or more would be closer to the mid-range.

3 reactions on 'What is a “fair” contribution of the EU to the 2°C limit?'

  • Paul Baer 28-01-2014 at 19:08 I’m glad that you call out the EU’s climate target as “not enough.” But I think that your conclusion is still far too charitable, based among other things on your own recent study (Höhne, Den Elzen and Escalante 2014) which you cite in your first bullet. In that bullet you write that “the group of OECD countries would need to adopt targets of 33 to 74%... below 1990 in 2030.” This claim critically misrepresents the data presented in the cited study. The 33-74% range is simply an arbitrary truncation at the 20th and 80th percentile of the ranges of the 39 studies with GHG stabilization between 425-475 ppm, which excludes the seven studies with the lowest emissions allocations for the OECD 90 countries.

    In the cited paper, it is noted that the full range includes “proposals in the category ‘Responsibility, capability, and need’ (negative allowances in 2030 of -106% to -128% change from 2010 level) and those based on ‘Equal per capita accumulative emissions’ (-82% to -85%).” The existence of these other studies is acknowledged in the second to last paragraph of this posting, in which you write:

    “On the other end of the spectrum are proposals that put significant emphasis on historical greenhouse gas emissions and economic capability to reduce emissions. The EU scores very high on both indicators. These approaches, e.g. one proposed by developing country researchers, result in near zero (100% reduction) or even negative emission targets (more than 100% reduction) for the EU already in 2030. Such stringent targets can only be achieved by purchasing emission reductions from abroad in addition to reducing domestic emissions.”

    Still, you conclude “A 50% target or more would be closer to the mid-range.” Leaving aside for the moment that “50% or more” is ambiguous and that by definition anything greater than 40% would be “closer to the mid range” than 40% is, implying that 50% is actually near the mid-range is only possible because the more stringent targets have been eliminated on the basis of an unjustified statistical truncation. It’s not as if the 39 studies are a sample with some “random error” which makes some of them vary by a larger or smaller amount from a meaningful central tendency. On the contrary, the distribution of allocations is, as you acknowledge, a consequence of the application of equity principles by the authors of the various studies. And the truncation happens to exclude two of the most politically significant (and, I would argue, ethically robust) equity frameworks, the Greenhouse Development Rights framework (of which I am a co-author), and equal cumulative per capita.

    Perhaps ironically, by defining its 40% reduction target for 2030 as a domestic emissions target, the EU has left open the possibility that its “finance” contribution to global mitigation could raise its effective commitment by an arbitrarily large amount - even by enough to comply with the very low or negative emissions allowances defined as fair in frameworks like GDRs or cumulative per capita. It would be nice to believe that this is in fact what the EU intends to bring to the negotiations as a finance pledge. Unfortunately, evidence suggests that the EU and other OECD countries intend to low-ball their finance pledges as well, in part by simply refusing to discuss them until domestic emissions pledges have been made by all countries.
    There is of course much more that could be said here, including addressing the implications of the EU’s announced target for global atmospheric stabilization levels and the probability of staying below 2ºc. Suffice it to say for now that if this pledge represents “leadership,” we are being led into a very dangerous future. The relatively minor increase in ambition that is implied to be equitable in this analysis is letting the EU off much, much too easily.

    --Paul Baer, EcoEquity
  • Ecofys: Niklas Höhne 31-01-2014 at 09:53 Dear Paul,

    Thank you for your helpful remarks. This blog is a simplified view of what is explained in detail in the underlying studies.

    My main message is that a 40% target is only just at the least ambitious end of the possible spectrum and that more would be better. How much depends on the viewpoint and the approach chosen. The blog mentions the full range, including the ambitious end defined by your proposal. The range quoted "the group of OECD countries would need to adopt targets of 33 to 74%... below 1990 in 2030" is indeed a simplification, truncating extreme results at both ends. The underlying paper shows also a different way of aggregating. Results are shown in categories of approaches, where your approach falls within a category of its own. You also quote this in your response.

    You point to another fact that (after the blog was written) the European Commission proposed to reduce *domestic* greenhouse gas emissions by 40%, i.e. could achieve more with international offsets or climate financing. However it was not specified how much that will be.

    Niklas
  • Mike Childs 21-02-2014 at 15:40 An interesting study (and exchange). We (Friends of the Earth) published a report [1] that identified the EU should cut GHGs by 80% by 2030 based on equally sharing the remaining carbon budget on a population basis (thus excluding historical emissions). This was for a 75% chance of avoiding 2 degrees In it we question the ability of the rich world to buy itself out of these cuts if developing countries are to have the carbon budgets they need for developing.

    A 50% 2030 EU domestic cut would therefore still appear on the low side (and obviously 40% is far too low).

    There is a danger that if 50% is seen as 'fair' then EU Ministers won't lose sleep at achieving 40% which in their eyes is close to 50%.

    [1] Our study: http://www.foe.co.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/reckless_gamblers.pdf

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