Earth Day 2022 will be a little out of the ordinary this year. Typically it is marked by flowery speeches, groups of elementary school children planting trees, and a collective shrug from most of the world’s roughly 8 billion human inhabitants.
Yet overall, Earth Day has been a success. Since its inception on April 22, 1970, it has served as a beacon, focusing our easily diverted attention on our terrestrial home and its constant degradation by human activity. Just as a lighthouse guides mariners to a safe harbor, Earth Day helps us navigate through dangerous waters and offers us the hope of a sustainable future. Such beacons, both real and imagined, are important, for as Forrest Gump taught us, “If you don’t know where you are going, you will probably not wind up there.”
Climate change wasn’t even a thing in 1970. The first Earth Day was an acknowledgement that we humans need to be good to our home if we expect to continue living here. In effect, Earth Day represents the collective knowledge of Indigenous people everywhere that using your home as a garbage dump is not a good long term strategy. The Earth doesn’t care if you came over on the Mayflower or what your political affiliation is. The only thing that matters is whether the human species uses its home wisely or stupidly. Right now, stupid seems to be winning as we pay lip service to cutting emissions while continuing to chop down our forests and eyeing the overheating Arctic as a place to extract even more oil and gas.
President Joe Biden has invited world leaders to a global climate conference on Thursday. The US and China are ramping up that war of words between them as China flexes its new-found economic and political muscles, but despite the growing hostility, President Xi Jinping has agreed to participate and will make an “important speech,” according to Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry.
That’s good news. China is now the largest emitter of pollutants that contribute to a warming planet but the US is not far behind and had been doing so for far longer than China. Nevertheless, Xi announced recently that his country has set a goal of being carbon neutral by 2060. Is that fast enough? Maybe not, but it is a tectonic shift for one of the world’s largest economies and it makes China a leader in the battle to keep the planet from overheating.
EU Agrees To New Climate Law
After a marathon 15-hour bargaining session, negotiators from the member countries of the European Union agreed on a new Climate Law that will reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by “at least 55%” by 2030, compared to 1990 levels, according to Euractiv. The EU has announced its intention to be carbon neutral by 2050 and this new agreement will help it get there. The agreement means the EU members can come to the Biden Earth Day conference with an important new standard, one that will challenge other nations to respond in kind.
The 55% reduction is not quite the 60% approved earlier by the European Parliament, but the European Commission agreed to consider increasing the contribution of carbon sinks in order to bump up the EU’s climate ambition to 57%, although this is not written into the law. The negotiators also decided to establish an independent scientific advisory body, the European Scientific Advisory Board, to advise policymakers on the alignment of EU policies with the bloc’s climate neutrality goal.
“We raised the ambition of the 2030 net target to almost 57%, we got the GHG-budget and the Advisory board. We wanted more, but this is a good first step towards climate neutrality,” said Jytte Guteland, the Parliament’s lead negotiator. The new EU 2030 target translates into a “gross” reduction of 52.8% without carbon removals from agriculture and forestry.
The inclusion of “carbon sinks” made members of the Green party unhappy. They denounced the move as an “accounting trick” to meet the 55% goal for 2030. “By failing to establish a serious climate target without accounting tricks in the European Climate Law, the Green Deal fails to live up to the big speeches of the Ursula von der Leyen Commission,” said Michael Bloss, the lead negotiator for the Greens in the European Parliament.
The center right European People’s Party backed the “net” target for 2030. “A 55% net target for 2030 is very ambitious,” said German Christian Democrat Peter Liese. On Twitter, he hailed what he described as an “historical agreement.”
#EUClimateLaw @2021PortugalEU @EUCouncil and @Europarl_EN reached today a provisional political agreement setting into law the objective of a climate-neutral EU by 2050. The EU climate law sets the frame for the EU's climate action in the long term #EU2021PT pic.twitter.com/ZQa718CO7J
— 2021Portugal.eu (@2021PortugalEU) April 21, 2021
2040 & 2050 Targets
The Parliament did get a victory when it comes to setting a target for 2040, which will be informed by a greenhouse gas budget that determines how much carbon the EU can emit up to 2050 before it breaches the Paris Agreement. This will have separate calculations for emissions and carbon sinks. Beyond 2050, EU negotiators agreed to strive towards reaching negative emissions.
However, national representatives in the EU Council of Ministers did not agree to make the 2050 goal a legal obligation for every country individually. Instead, the 2050 climate goal will remain an objective for the EU to attain as a group, meaning some countries will be allowed to reach the objective later if others manage to decarbonize their economies sooner. “Unfortunately, the Council was not ready to accept climate neutrality for every member state. It will remain a collective target,” Liese said.
The negotiators did agree that the European Commission would help create road maps for decarbonization for industrial sectors that make a request for it. The EU executive will then facilitate dialogue, share best practices, and monitor progress. As part of concessions made to EU member states, Parliament negotiators dropped demands regarding access to justice and fossil fuel subsidies. The Commission however promised to come back to the issue by defining energy subsidies, including those for fossil fuel, through the clarification of rules under the Governance Regulation.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she was “delighted” that a deal has been reached on the climate law. “Our political commitment to becoming the first climate neutral continent by 2050 is now also a legal commitment. The Climate Law sets the EU on a green path for a generation. It is our binding pledge to our children and grandchildren.”
Frans Timmermans, the Commission’s executive vice-president in charge of the European Green Deal, was equally cheerful, saying: “This is a landmark moment for the EU. We have reached an ambitious agreement to write our climate neutrality target into binding legislation, as a guide to our policies for the next 30 years. The Climate Law will shape the EU’s green recovery and ensure a socially just green transition.”
“Today’s agreement also reinforces our global position as a leader in tackling the climate crisis. When world leaders gather on Earth Day, the EU will come to the table with this positive news, which we hope will inspire our international partners. This is a good day for our people and our planet,” he added while noting the importance of the agreement when it comes to presenting the EU position on the world stage, such as during Biden’s Earth Day climate conference.
Pascal Canfin, the chairman of the European Parliament’s environment committee, said “Today, Europe confirms its leadership in the fight against climate change. Twenty-four hours before the climate leaders’ summit, we are further strengthening our European climate objectives thanks to a reduction in our emissions which will reach nearly 57% compared to 1990. Parliament was obviously ready to go even further, but the compromise found is ambitious: we are going to do two and a half times more in nine years than what we have done in the last 10 years in Europe.”
Slow & Steady
Many will chafe at the pace of progress. Some of the world’s leading climate scientists warn the world has only 8 years to get its house in order before global warming reaches a tipping point and a long slide into oblivion for the human race begins. Others will bemoan the 4 years wasted by the previous administration which decided to deal with the crisis by throwing a tantrum.
But it is what it is, as Patriots head coach Bill Belichek likes to say. We are hours away from what may be an historic inflection point in the process of keeping the Earth habitable by humans. The challenges are enormous but they have to be dealt with responsibly, which means actual adults tackling them head on.
A good agreement is one in which nobody is completely happy. The nature of politics is that no one gets everything on their wish list. The outcome of this week’s global climate conference will help inform us whether we as species are willing and able to address those challenges in a meaningful way.
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