In 2015, 195 countries signed up to the Paris Climate Accord. It is a cause for celebration because the world has come together unanimously to agree to limit the warming of the earth to two degrees. Five years later, ambitions seem to have cooled. The majority of countries are doing too little, the US withdrew from the accord, and we are heading for a warming of four degrees. Europe does remain ambitious, but is that enough? “We have no other option. The faster we act, the less it will cost us.”
This quote is from Katja Biedenkopf, Professor of International and European Studies. Along with her colleagues at the interdisciplinary thinktank Metaforum, she has spent the past few years analysing the social aspects of climate change.
“An upper limit of two degrees was already ambitious in 2015,” Professor Biedenkopf says. “Each country formulated its ambitions and commitments in so-called NDCs – nationally determined contributions. The plan is to evaluate them and make them more ambitious every five years. Unfortunately, many of the original goals were vague or they are not being implemented sufficiently. But still … Even if every country were to keep its promises, we won’t make it. We need to make additional efforts.”
In 2015, the then president of the United States Barack Obama tweeted that the climate accord was a tour de force, ‘thanks to American leadership.’ In 2017, his successor Donald Trump decided that leadership wasn’t for him. The new POTUS withdrew from the climate accord because he considered it a ‘punishment of the American economy’.
“That is probably the biggest blow to the climate accord,” Biedenkopf says. “The US did not have a particularly progressive climate policy beforehand, but it was a start. With Trump things were different … It is some solace at least that in the US not everything is decided on the national level. Some American states have their own climate legislation. For example, California’s climate policy is more ambitious than that of the EU. That does not alter the fact that Trump was a disaster for the climate. Four more years of the same policies would have been absolutely horrific.”
‘Made in China’ has consequences. If we continue to buy their products, we are indirectly responsible for their emissions.”
Made in China
The US is responsible for fifteen percent of global CO2 emissions. China is in first place with twenty-nine percent. What does the world’s biggest polluter do? “China promised to reduce the 2005 share of greenhouse gasses in its gross domestic product by more than half by 2030. That sounds good, but they also said that their economy is still growing. This means that total emissions may rise. They say that there will be record emissions in 2030, followed by a decrease in ‘absolute emissions’.”
In the meantime, the country is enforcing measures. “China is investing in electronic cars, planting forests and investing in green energy. But the Chinese are still very dependent on coal, which is extremely CO2 polluting. They not only build their own coal-fired power stations, but also finance them in other countries. This has consequences for the final tally.”
“It is relative, of course,” Biedenkopf says. “China is the biggest polluter, but it is also an enormous country with many inhabitants. Analysing the matter per capita yields a very different story. Belgium is doing worse, to say nothing of the US. Even more important is the fact that China produces a lot for our consumption. ‘Made in China’ has consequences. If we continue to buy their products, we are indirectly responsible for their emissions.”
The EU is playing a pioneering role. It aims to cut the 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by forty percent by 2030. Realistic? “Forty percent certainly is,” Biedenkopf says. “We will probably even manage fifty percent by 2030. We ought to be climate neutral by 2050. This does not mean that we will no longer emit anything, but there are ways of compensating for it. For example, you can remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere or offset them immediately during production processes. We still have to make significant investments in infrastructure, but reducing emissions is already possible with existing technology and current policies.”
Biedenkopf is referring to the emissions trade, a pillar of Europe’s climate policy. Companies are given or can buy emission rights for the CO2 that they emit. Those that emit little can sell their rights to those that emit more. By connecting emissions to money, companies must assess their situation: investing in green technologies or buying additional rights.
“It is a good system because you know how much you emit, and there is an emissions limit for energy companies and heavy industry. Though you must be careful. The EU initially overestimated emission rights. Too many came onto the market and the price plummeted. If emitting CO2 is practically free, the system obviously doesn’t work. This defect has been redressed: by systematically releasing fewer rights onto the market, the price increases and emissions decrease.”
At the same time, companies that compete internationally are given a lot of emissions rights for free. This was a concession from the EU, to prevent these companies from moving elsewhere. “It is about finding a balance,” Biedenkopf says. “If those companies were to move abroad, that CO2 would be emitted elsewhere, there would be less or no control, and there would be no net benefit. Moreover, in exchange, the EU forces them to produce efficiently, which also helps to reduce emissions. Such emissions trade would ideally be introduced worldwide, but I don’t see that happing any time soon…”
Developing countries have the advantage that they can immediately invest in climate-friendly technology and clean energy. They need not make the ‘mistakes’ that we made.
The question is thus whether there are other ways to get the world involved. “Europe must create a win-win situation that is beneficial for the climate and generates economic growth,” Biedenkopf says. “If that works, others will follow our example. Think of Germany, which started investing in solar energy early. Other countries saw the advantages and jumped on the wagon. A new installation for solar power is now cheaper than nuclear or coal-fired power stations.”
Developing countries also deserve our attention, Biedenkopf says. “Their emissions are not high, but they do suffer disproportionately from the effects of climate change. Think of countries where people still live off small-scale agriculture. When they suffer drought that destroys the harvest, they have nothing to eat. They must invest in irrigation systems and to adapt to the current changes in the climate.
“Every low-emission country of course wants to become prosperous. The question is how they will organize their economy. Developing countries have the advantage that they can immediately invest in climate-friendly technology and clean energy. They need not make the ‘mistakes’ that we made. If they do, the future will not look rosy. We must support them with financing and expertise to make climate-friendly choices.”
Biedenkopf remains hopeful for a green future. “Minds are beginning to mature,” she says. “Global warming was long an invisible problem, but now that we are faced with heatwaves and periods of drought, people are starting to realize that something has to change. The university can play an exemplary role in this regard. And we do, by changing our behaviour and teaching students the skills to contribute to a sustainable future.”
Does it make sense to take expensive measures if Europe is the only ambitious continent? “We have no other option,” Biedenkopf says. “The faster we do something about climate change, the less it will cost us and the greater the chance that other will follow. Closing our eyes to the climate is like driving blind. It inevitably leads to a crash.”