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The European Commission has unveiled an ambitious climate target for 2040 — aiming to cut net greenhouse-gas emissions by 90% compared to 1990 levels. Researchers say that the target, while admirable, risks relying too much on technologies such as carbon removal — which is largely unproven — rather than prioritizing the cutting of fossil fuels. Political shifts to the right, with many European Union member states electing governments that are unlikely to prioritize climate policy, might also make the goal difficult to achieve.

“It’s going to be very difficult to reach a 90% or 95% emissions reduction without cutting very strongly on fossil fuels,” says Richard Klein, a climate researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute. “Carbon capture and storage is great if it works,” says Klein. “But it simply hasn’t been shown to work at the scale that would be needed — it remains a pipe dream.”

The target was revealed in a ‘communication’ report on 6 February. It is not yet legally binding, but the communication will now form the basis of legislation designed to take the EU beyond its existing targets for 2030, and onto its goal for 2050.

Carbon removal

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The commission’s current targets, which were set in 2021 and are law, are to reduce net greenhouse-gas emissions by at least 55% compared with 1990 level by 2030. The other goal commits bloc to achieving ‘climate neutrality’ by 2050. That means ensuring that greenhouse-gas emissions are equal to or less than the emissions absorbed from the atmosphere by natural processes. In 2022, the EU had decreased emissions by 32.5% compared with 1990 levels.

The 2040 target focuses on a ‘net cut’, meaning that the goal can be met by actual cuts to emissions alongside technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) that lock emissions underground. The commission also wants to phase out coal-fired power by 2040, as well as fossil fuel subsidies, which it says “do not address energy poverty or just transition”.

The latest target has taken into account scientists’ recommendations, says Joeri Rogelj, a climate scientist at Imperial College London who is a board member of the European Scientific Advisory Board on Climate Change, which includes climate scientists from across the EU and advises the commission. Rogelj says that the board advised the commission to aim for a target of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 90% to 95% by 2040. “With this communication, of aiming for a reduction of 90% — it definitely falls in that range,” Rogelj says. “It’s positive to see that the advice was taken up.”

But the finer details of the strategy — in particular the inclusion of targets for carbon removal — have attracted criticism. CCS has not yet been proven on a large scale. “It’d be very dangerous to rely strongly on carbon capture and storage, because it would give the signal that you can basically continue to invest in fossil fuels, and that will go very much against the idea of what was agreed in Dubai at COP28,” he adds, referring to the last year’s United Nations climate summit. The focus on removal echos a bold target proposed by the administration of US President Joe Biden, which also focused on CCS technologies.

Falling behind

Rogelj is pleased that the communication explicitly separates out emissions reductions from carbon removal — meaning member states can’t just rely on removing carbon, they must also reduce emissions in parallel. “Carbon dioxide removal definitely comes with this kind of risk of obfuscating what actually needs to happen, by expecting that indeed carbon dioxide will be removed,” he says.

Although the commission’s 2040 target provides a more detailed plan towards achieving net zero — meaning greenhouse-gas emissions are zero or completely balanced by removal mechanisms — it will be important to ensure that it doesn’t detract from efforts to meet the 2030 goals, says Klein. Countries already aren’t on track to meet 2030 targets, and a political shift to the right in many EU nations makes it less likely that the bloc will meet the existing goal, says Klein.

“We’ve got several countries with governments either just installed or in the making, like in the Netherlands, where the governments are likely to be led by parties who either don’t believe in climate change or don’t consider climate policy to be particularly the priority,” he says.

Researchers also say that although reducing carbon emissions is crucial, there needs to be more focus on adaptation — lessening the current or future impacts of climate change, such as by building flood barriers. “We can’t effectively mitigate climate change without more ambitious finance for adapting to the impacts it’s already having,” says climate-policy researcher Mikael Allan Mikaelsson, who is also at the Stockholm Environment Institute.

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