Ursula von der Leyen’s “Green Deal” for the EU: Ambitions that are too “clear”?

The new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, proposed on Wednesday to increase the target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from 40% to at least 55% by 2030. But a draft European legislation obtained by several media raises concerns that this target is less ambitious than it seems.

This is one of the key figures in the long-awaited first general political speech given by Ursula von der Leyen, the new President of the European Commission, on Wednesday 16 September. In her portrait of a European Union emerging with a headline from the Covid-19 pandemic, she insisted on a new goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions: 55% compared to the 1990s by 2030 instead of the 40% forecast until then.

This upward-revised climate ambition “will reduce our dependence on energy imports, create millions more jobs and reduce air pollution by more than half”, she added. Ursula von der Leyen also puts the European bloc “resolutely on the path to fulfilling its obligations under the Paris Agreement” [accord sur le climat de 2015 pour ne pas dépasser une hausse de température de 2°C par rapport à l’ère pré-industrielle, NDLR]”, she wants to believe.

Semantic modification

Ursula von der Leyen knows that she will not only make friends with this proposal. “I realize that this increase from 40% to 55% is too big for some and insufficient for others,” she said. A reference to the European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy, which last week voted in favor of a proposal to postpone contact further and aim for a 60% reduction in emissions by 2030.

But above all, some demand that this commitment be made with a grain of salt. A draft European legislation that would set the new climate goal in stone, obtained by The Guardian and the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, raises fears of a trompe-l’oeil ambition. This document calls for an attempt to reduce “net emissions” by 55% by 2030. An earlier version, published in March, simply referred to “emissions”, that is, all greenhouse gases produced by human activity.

The addition of the qualification network can change everything if this wording is adopted. Brussels could deduct polluting emissions from industries, cars or even agriculture, CO2 caught by natural carbon sinks, such as forests.

The spectrum of this semantic modification has made NGOs like Greenpeace jump. “The climate goals from 2030 must be achieved through profound changes in the industry’s operations, faster energy conversion and not through creative accounting,” replied Sebastian Mang, climate specialist for Greenpeace, was interviewed by Süddeutsche Zeitung.

It must be said that in theory, if we take into account the natural carbon sinks, the stated goal of a reduction of 55% can be less ambitious than reaching 40% by simply counting the emissions produced by human activity “, assures Philippe Ciais, Deputy Head of the Laboratory for Climate and Environmental Sciences (LSCE), contacted by France 24.

Uncertainty and lack of transparency

Although it is easy to measure the greenhouse gases emitted from every European country, this is not the case for CO.2 captured by natural wells. “It is estimated, for example, at 30% the margin of error to measure the amount of carbon stored in forests,” states this researcher.

In addition, “if we can roughly count the catch of CO2 Predicting what will happen in the future is much more difficult, simply because the storage capacity of forests varies from year to year, depending on a large number of factors, “explains Jérôme Chave, CNRS researcher at the Laboratory for Evolution and Biodiversity, contacted by France 24.

Taking natural depressions into account in order to measure efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would thus introduce an element of uncertainty and lack of transparency in European accounting. “If a country claims that its soils capture 20% of CO2, it is difficult to control and you can not oppose it, states Philippe Ciais. In other words, the fear is that these natural carbon sinks will become sliders that states can use to minimize their emissions.

But for Jerome Chave, the problem is even deeper. “Implicit is the debate over whether we can compensate for future emissions, which could lead to industrialists being given an empty control to continue to pollute,” the CNRS researcher said. The logic would be to say that we will plant more forests, find more and more alternative solutions for storing coal to reduce the pressure on the economy to become more “green”.

This is not to say that promoting natural sinks is not in itself positive. “If this leads to the development of more forests in Europe, so much the better,” admits Philippe Ciais. But for him, the European Commission should continue to set a clear course to reduce emissions, to which we can add an additional target with regard to natural carbon sinks.

That may be what the Commission will decide in the end. The details of Ursula von der Leyen’s plan will be announced on Thursday and nothing has been decided yet on the bill. The leaked text also contains proposals to drive sectors such as transport and aviation to do more in terms of reducing emissions or promoting more sustainable forest management, states Süddeutsche Zeitung. But in order to achieve its stated goal of becoming the first in the climate class, Europe should not take dubious accounting shortcuts.