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Net Zero Emissions by 2050: Is the EU Moving Fast Enough?

Jonas Schoenefeld, Kai Schulze, Mikael Hildén, Andy Jordan

Research article available here


The most recent IPCC report concludes that human-induced climate change is already generating many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe and that “limiting human-induced global warming to a specific level requires limiting cumulative CO2 emissions, reaching at least net zero CO2-emissions, along with strong reductions in other greenhouse gas emissions.”

Against this background, the European Union (EU) has set itself the ambitious target to become climate-neutral by 2050, i.e. a continent with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. ‘Net’ means that any greenhouse gas emissions that are emitted in the EU in 2050 do not exceed the capacity of the sinks, such as forests, to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. So far, the European Environment Agency suggests that the EU needs to do more to reach its own targets.

Given that all areas of modern human life, including our mobility (cars, trucks, trains), our energy (power plants) and our buildings (heating, electricity) still depend to a significant degree on fossil fuels like oil and gas, the net zero target implies far reaching changes within a generation. Changes of this magnitude and speed have so far hardly ever been seen in human history.

To achieve this change, the EU aims to ensure that public policies, that is, the actions that public actors including governments and international organisations take, encourage both private and public societal actors to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The origin of policies to address climate change date all the way back at least to 1992 following the international environment summit in Rio de Janeiro that led to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

We can now look back on a nearly 30-year history of EU policy development, which is roughly the length of time we have until 2050. In a recently published article in the International Spectator, we set out to understand what policy changes in the past can tell us about the future. In particular, we draw on a public database which the EU uses to keep track of its greenhouse gas emissions, and since the 2000s, also of its policy development including information on climate policies and specific measures from all EU Member States.

On the face of it, there is much to celebrate. The number of policies and measures across all EU Member States had grown to around 2,000 by 2019. Drawing on ten years’ worth of climate policy data, we aimed at identifying patterns of climate policy-making, that is, in which policy sectors (such as energy, health or agriculture) the EU Member States introduce their policies, and what types of policies they are (e.g., whether they are economic instruments such as taxes or informational instruments that seek to inform citizens about climate change and what can be done).

Our results reveal that while the number of instruments has grown, substantial policy change has been rather slow and incremental, just as policy scientists would predict. We found that the reported expected greenhouse gas emissions per policy has actually decreased, and the relative proportion of policies in each sector remains more or less unchanged. A stable sectoral policy distribution is surprising, given the known imbalances and sectors such as mobility, which have been notoriously difficult to decarbonise. A relatively small decrease in policy diversity (by instrument type) however may be an early indication of policy maturation and thus a sorting between more and less effective instruments. Overall, this relatively slow development does not chime with the need for fast decarbonisation by 2050. Our analysis highlights the need for designing increasingly effective policies in order to stand a chance of achieving net zero.

Crucially, the EU and its Member States need to be able to track not only the overall emissions of greenhouse gases, but also more systematically evaluate the performance of the thousands of climate policies and measures that they have put in place. Our results give scholars and evaluators a base for exploring the merits of different policies or packages of policies in guiding societies towards climate neutrality. Greater attention to the evolving climate policy mix in the EU, as well as sectoral foci, may be one way to contribute to a dramatic reduction of greenhouse gases.


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