The road to zero carbon: what European projects are telling us

According to the IPCC Special Report, at current emissions (around 42 Gigatons of CO2 per year), the available carbon budget for reaching 1.5 °C will expire between 2030 and 2040, and for 2.0°C will expire anywhere between 2040 and 2050. This is the reason we need to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and why we are fighting against time to cut the 20+ Gigatons of CO2 until 2030 (see chart).


So, we have to ask ourselves how can we undertake such drastic changes without risking at the same time the liveability, food security or quality of life of billions of people?

It is not going to be easy. But, as I have mentioned elsewhere, a clear long-term common vision of a green future is a good start. In the Paris agreement, 196 nations pledged to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible (not so clear indeed). The EU itself has set the ambition to becoming climate neutral by 2050 and prevent the worst effects of temperature increase. This 2050 climate-neutrality target has been since enshrined into law (European Climate Law).

The next step is building the road to get there – the “right” one or of least resistance. In technical terms we call this a “transition pathway”. Transition pathways consist of a coherent selection of policies, strategies and technologies that lead to low carbon innovations in one or more sectors (Lieu et al, 2020). They also equate, inevitably, an indication of the (often hard) decisions we need to take in order to move in the right direction. For example, shortening the distance food travels from the farm to our plates.

The 2018 EU strategy “Clean Planet for All” – a European strategic long-term vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate neutral economy provides an indicative pathway, composed of “a number of solutions that could be pursued for the transition to a net-zero GHG emissions economy by mid-century”. Electrification of the energy supply, electric vehicles, reducing energy consumption, promoting a circular bioeconomy, and carbon capture and storage are some of the options chosen in the strategy (see image below).

Figure. EU 2018 transition pathway.

As the 2030 and the 2050 climate target ambition have been increased, a new pathway strategy is expected in the Summer of 2021.

At the same time, to support European, national or regional policymaking, a wide number of research and policy-oriented organisations across Europe have been making their own contributions on the best options to deliver the 2050 target with the least amount of disruption. Providing decision-makers trustworthy estimates of what the different paths entail, in terms of benefits or costs, can take us a long way to actually achieving our goals.

In this article, I explore a select number of research projects with the objective of revealing what they have been saying about optimal transition pathways. What I have found out is that they certainly don’t provide answers, but they do provide valuable tools to help us reach those answers.

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European Post-COVID Recovery Plans

Yesterday, the Interreg’s Policy Learning Platform team organised an interesting webinar dedicated to the European Recovery and Resilience Facility (ERRF). The Commission’s representative had the keynote and she took the opportunity to exemplify some of the projects and reforms the European Commission (EC) envisions to be financed under the ERRF financial umbrella. As the ERRF’s timeline is rapidly unravelling, this is a great opportunity to delve a bit into what this package is all about and what kind of outcomes it will likely generate until its scheduled conclusion in 2026.

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4 Steps to Beat Climate Change Complacency

time for change

“Under the Business-as-Usual Scenario, emissions of greenhouse gases will result in a global temperature increase of 0.3° per decade — greater than ever seen in the past 10,000 years. This will likely result in a global-mean temperature of about 1ºC above the present value by 2025 and 3° at the end of the century. (…) Stabilizing [global temperatures] would require immediate reductions in emissions of over 60% compared with current levels.”

If you think this is the latest warning report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), about the consequences of acting too late on anthropogenic greenhouse gases you would be mistaken. It was taken from the first IPCC report, back in 1992 — almost 30 years ago.

It seems like nothing has changed since the working group drafted those lines of warning: apparently we are still following the 1°C course. It is uncanny how predictions made then have proven to be entirely accurate 28 years later. Except, of course, the predictions for the end of the century: now we are looking at a 5° to 8°C increase. Such an increase would be catastrophic for our way of life.

In Paris, the international community has vowed to limit global temperature increases to the 1.5° C threshold, in other words, to slash emissions by 35 gigatons (GT) annually this decade. This would be six times larger than the previous record reduction of 0,4 GT in 2009 — caused by the global financial crisis — and twice as large as the combined total of all previous reductions since the end of World War II. Of course, once the crises were over the rebound in emissions was always larger than the decline.

While it is theoretically possible to achieve such fundamental changes in our economic systems, we have a significant challenge in our hands: transforming the world economy in 10 years.

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Why do policies fail?

And how understanding this can help us kick-start the green transition

Before COVID-19, the mayoral candidate of New City had a vision: to replace car lanes with bicycle paths and tree-lined pedestrian boulevards. The plan aimed to encourage calmer walking and biking right at the core of New City. As COVID-19 happened in early 2020, the now mayor took a swift approach to implement the plan. Soft temporary barriers, plants and benches were placed, and former car lanes were repainted and repurposed.
A few months later, the results were disappointing. Post-lockdown meant an increase in traffic which resulted in increased congestion. The paint on the street lanes wore off and was soon overtaken by parked automobiles. The opposition criticised the government for fast-tracking the project without proper planning considerations. The project ended up being viewed as a personal project of the Mayor. Local ‘green’ champions rued the loss of momentum and opportunity of an initiative that, at first, held all the characteristics to improve the lives of citizens and reduce car emissions.

The fictitious story of ‘New City’ above can serve as a cautionary tale to any government aiming to deliver its own ‘green transition’ in the next years. Unfortunately, the signals from climate science could not be clearer: we don’t have the luxury of implementing trial and error policies and risk further delay in transforming our economies towards carbon neutrality. We have ten years to avoid worst-case scenarios and decisively transform the world economy – there is no margin for costly mistakes.

So, why even well-intentioned, well-designed policies fail? And what can we do about it?

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What would a Green Economy look like?

The short answer is we don’t  know.

Economic development has been traditionally viewed as the accumulation of wealth, usually in terms of owning things. It was generally accepted and even desired that this accumulation would be had at the expense of the natural world. Perhaps as a result of this world view, Economics lacks an integrative framework that incorporates our planetary limits. It seem strange though that, for example, the problem of scale or the consequences of a critical depletion of natural resources such as clean water and air, caused by continuous extraction and pollution, are never mentioned in the economics books. Any environmental restriction is viewed as external (and hence called an externality) and necessarily dealt exclusively by the government. Needless to say world governments’ action also have their limits, and some resources are simply not recoverable.

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Managing (green) change: what and who

pollution, environment, drone

The emergence of a green economy still remains at the margins of economic policy in most countries. However, as a number of international organisations have been telling us for three decades now, we need to drastically reduce our carbon output. So what obstacles are we facing? And what do we need to change in our strategies?

Public authorities play a key role in steering the green transition. It is mainly up to them to correct misaligned incentives and market failures, that allow current levels of CO2 emissions to continue unabated. Given the urgency and scale of transformation, we are asking them for a greater level of ambition, namely to go deeper than the “business as usual” green strategies that have been designed and delivered in the last decades. In conjunction with businesses, civil society and other stakeholders, they should guide investment in green projects, whilst ensuring equity and redistribution.  We need new economic models, but this time underpinned in a sustainable use of Earth’s resources, so that different generations can equally use them.

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An inclusive green transition

It goes without saying that the green transition must have people at its core, from each individual political or technical decision to the fundamental vision driving the wide-ranging initiatives. A greener but unbalanced economy, where important sections of the population do not have access to quality jobs, cannot be qualified as a success. It will definitely also undermine its political viability, the same way as the on-going unbalanced digital transformation is throwing a high number of workers into low-paying jobs and altering the political landscape as we have known for decades.

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