With the European Union’s official submission yesterday of its post-2020 climate action commitment, known as an “intended nationally determined contribution” (INDC), the world is now one step closer toward reaching a global climate agreement in Paris at the end of this year. The submission is the second formal INDC, following Switzerland’s delivery to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) last week.

The EU’s INDC puts forward a legally binding commitment to reduce its overall emissions at least 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. An annex to the submission provides an overview of the technical details associated with the target, such as the sectors and gases it covers, the accounting approaches involved, the legislative process underpinning the target’s implementation, and an explanation of why the EU considers the target fair and ambitious.

While the EU commitment is a solid INDC that sets the stage for greater climate action internationally, there are a few ways it can be strengthened.

Confirming its Commitment to Low-Carbon Path

As stated in the INDC, the EU’s GDP has grown by more than 44 percent. At the same time, it has decreased its emissions 19 percent below 1990 levels; per capita emissions have likewise fallen. The INDC is consistent with the EU’s transition from a high-carbon trajectory. It’s also in line with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) conclusion that global emissions must be cut in half and developed countries must reduce their emissions 80-95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 in order to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F), thus preventing some of the worst impacts of climate change. The INDC reconfirms that the EU is serious about advancing the path toward a low-carbon future in several ways:

  • Sets a benchmark for other countries to follow by putting forward its contribution well in advance of the Paris negotiations
  • The “at least” language in its target demonstrates that the EU is keeping the door open to reductions greater than 40 percent
  • Key accounting details associated with the contribution are documented, which can help to facilitate a transparent analysis of the impact on GHG emissions and promote accountability for meeting the target

Differences from the INDC Proposal

The INDC contains the same basic contours as a draft proposal that the European Commission released last week. Relative to that communication, though, the INDC includes a more robust description of why the EU considers its target to be fair and ambitious. In particular, the INDC states that the contribution represents a “significant progression” beyond the current target for 2020, which includes the use of offsets. (The 2030 target, outlined yesterday, does not include offsets.)

In addition, compared to the earlier communication, the INDC includes additional information on the legislative “planning process,” an element suggested by the Lima Call for Climate Action that can help explain how the target will be achieved.

Finally, the INDC reflects slight revisions to the language surrounding treatment of agriculture, forestry and land use, which emerged recently as a controversial element of the EU approach. Previous EU commitments have not included emissions from land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF). Their inclusion in the 2030 target has raised concerns that carbon sequestration in this sector could be used to offset emissions in other sectors, limiting the extent to which sectors like energy and transport would need to shift to low-carbon technologies. While the EU has stated that it will not “backslide” from current commitments in its treatment of LULUCF, the INDC does not yet clarify how its accounting approach will ensure this.

Potential Steps to Strengthen its Commitment

While the EU has left the door open to go beyond 40 percent in its reductions--and studies indicate that going further is possible— the current framing does not send a strong signal that the EU will pursue more ambitious cuts. In the lead-up to Paris, the EU could clarify how its approach to LULUCF will not detract from the “at least 40 percent” goal for other economic sectors. It could also set an aggressive target for 2025 to kick-start progress in achieving reductions.

While the EU has outlined the basic elements of its target in a clear and relatively comprehensive table—and has also improved transparency relative to its previous communication—it could still go further by:

  • Strengthening consideration of fairness and ambition to include data on GDP per capita and how per capita GHG emissions relate to the global average and/or achieving the ultimate goal of a binding and ambitious global climate agreement.
  • Quantifying the base-year emissions from which the “at least 40 percent” reduction will be calculated
  • Clarifying the approach to LULUCF

Next Steps

As the second country to formally submit its INDC to the UNFCCC, the EU demonstrates that countries need to work together toward a global climate agreement. Even still, the EU can go further, and in the coming months, other countries will be watching to see whether the EU increases its ambition. Other countries, too, will need to step up and submit INDCs that are fair, transparent and ambitious.