Getting out of the red: The Greenhouse Gas Budget

Read Issue 1: All About the Climate Law here.
Read Issue 2: Responding to a Crisis: Climate and Corona here.
Read Issue 3: Will COVID-19 Destroy or Empower the European Green Deal here
Read Issue 4: Financing the Green Deal here
Read Issue 5: The EU Recovery Plan here
Read Issue 6: The Mercosur Trade Agreement: A Lose-Lose Deal here
Read Issue 7: Farm to Fork Strategy here
Read Issue 8: The European Climate Targets by 2030 here
Read Issue 9: How Trees Can Stop Climate Change here

When the European Union decided to propose a European Green Deal to try and reach the climate targets of the Paris Agreement, they had to start with one important thing: reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Commission laid out their plans and proposed their own targets.

Unfortunately, the targets that have been set are not being backed up with policies. Earlier in the month, the Commission unveiled its proposal for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and guess what? It’s not green. It’s driven by fossil fuels and agri-business. It doesn’t prioritise cutting greenhouse gas emissions or making food production sustainable. MEPs and thousands of people have pointed out the obvious: there’s no European Green Deal in the CAP. Your policies are contradictory.

This problem is inevitable when there is no big picture. The EU’s focus is on reducing greenhouse gases, as we have explained before in our climate targets blog, but there is no legislative continuity. Targets are implemented sporadically and are not backed up throughout all EU policies. Climate change is impacted by all industries so we need to have oversight of all the emissions. We can’t be satisfied with small reductions here and there. What if it’s not enough? How will we know when it is enough?

This month, the EU will decide on the budget for the next seven years. The European Council will decide on the final climate targets and negotiations will begin on the CAP. We know that with the current budget proposed, and with trade agreements and agricultural policies like this, there is no way we can reach our own targets.

What we desperately need is a tool that sets limits as to how much CO2 we can still emit before entire ecosystems start breaking down. We need a red line. Please let us introduce to you, the greenhouse gas emissions budget (GHG budget)!

What is a greenhouse gas emissions budget?

Before we begin, a little disclaimer: sometimes experts talk about a greenhouse gas emissions budget and sometimes they talk about a carbon budget. The difference is that not all gasses are counted in the carbon budget which makes it ‘a fragment’ of the greenhouse gas emission budget. This is why it is crucial that the EU implements a GHG budget and not a carbon budget.

The GHG budget is the amount of greenhouse gasses that can still be released into the atmosphere before we reach the targets of the Paris Agreement. It’s hard to precisely calculate the exact number of years we have left before we reach this point because there are natural phenomena like feedback loops and tipping points that are hard to calculate. And, of course, it also depends on what target the EU wants to reach.

What happens if we exceed this GHG budget?  Well, nothing fun. It will mean that we released so much CO2 into the atmosphere that we’ve reached a point of no return, known as ‘the tipping point.’ This means that even a gentle push, like slow and steady warming, can cause change in a big way that is wholly disproportionate to the trigger. Experts say that one tipping point could lead a cascade of others. In other words, if one tipping point arrives we would not be able to stop it, nor to stop the domino effect that could follow.

For example, according to a climate scientist at University of Exeter in Southwest England, the West Antarctic ice sheet is gradually collapsing. The current data show that the same thing might be happening to part of the East Antarctic ice sheet. If those both melted, they could raise sea levels by seven metres over the next few hundred years. Millions of people would be affected. Once the ice sheets are gone, there is absolutely no way of undoing it. The only way we can stop it is to prevent it from happening in the first place.

What is certain though, is that the GHG budget is reducing very fast, which means we have less and less time left. If the EU’s emission budgets were based only on least-costs considerations, it would range between a meagre 50 Gt (in 1.5°C scenarios) or 90 Gt (in 2°C scenarios) for the period 2020 and 2100, according to the Ecologic Institute.

If we continue as we are, with the EU releasing around 4Gt of emissions per year, we will reach 1.5°C of global warming by 2032. If we are aiming for 2°C of global warming, our budget would be over in 2042.

What’s clear is that the EU’s targets need to be distinctly more ambitious than the ones we have today, if we take the GHG budget into account. Even more so, because we need to compensate for the unpredictable variables: weather events, warming hidden by air pollution feedback loops and tipping points. You could compare our current climate targets with an aeroplane that has around a 10-20% chance of crashing. Would you dare to fly in that thing? Nobody would.

Where is the EU in all of this?

We’re nowhere. The EU is aiming for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, leading us to a warming well above 2°C, with a big chance of racing towards a 3°C to 4°C rise once the vicious cycle spirals out of control.

We are not even close to reaching the Paris Agreement with our current targets.

The Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament fought for a target of 65% emissions reduction by 2030 but, unfortunately, too many political parties were against. The Parliament landed on a 60% target and when this decision moves to the European Council in December it is expected to be reduced again to 55%. But, as is clear, this does not take into account the GHG budget, which will be exceeded by 2032. In reality, none of these reduction targets are enough.

Right now, according to Mirjam Wolfrum, Director of Policy Engagement at CDP Europe, the private sector is showing more ambition than the European Commission. Over 70 companies, some of whom are heavy polluters, currently have climate targets in line with 1.5°C of global warming. There is clearly a lot of room for the EU to step it up. 

And one more thing: when the EU talks about ‘emissions ’, they don’t count aviation emissions, goods manufactured outside EU borders or the shipping of those goods. We’re not counting any of the emissions that come from trade. We’re missing our targets by even more than we thought.

It’s time for the EU to be up-front about its full role in global carbon emissions and to take responsibility. There is room for them to do it. The private sector is even urging them to form policies that would reshape our economic model from a fossil fuel-based one to a circular one. The next logical step is to implement a GHG budget.

How to calculate a GHG budget?

We already have targets, so why do we need a budget?

Setting a GHG budget is the only way we can be sure that the EU would never emit more than what our planet can handle. It would also set very clear limits for all other EU policies, and make sure we don’t end up with contradictory laws.

A GHG budget could replace all the long-term climate targets. It’s not something we need to be doing by 2030 or 2050. It would start right now and it would have to be applied to every policy. If we don’t stick to the budget, we know we’re gambling with future generations. It makes everything more concrete and we can use it to hold our politicians to account every single year.

Lastly, it would finally be a clear connection between science and politics. Scientists would finally be able to say ‘up until here, and no more.’ Then every financial policy, trade policy, agricultural policy and any other kind of policy would need to fall into line.

What needs to be done now?

The ENVI Committee in the European Parliament has asked the Commission to present a GHG budget by the end of December 2021. They’ve also asked to establish a European Climate Council which would consist of 15 senior scientists that would assess EU policies and the GHG budget to determine whether or not they are in line with the Paris Agreement.

We need to start using this GHG budget so that people are aware of what it is by the time the Commission needs to present its proposal next year. We need to build pressure to make this an ambitious GHG budget that does not rely on future large-scale “negative emissions technologies”, that are still nowhere in sight.

We have been saying “Unite Behind Science” for a long time. This could be the EU’s chance to do exactly that.


About us

We are Adélaïde Charlier and Anuna De Wever, two climate activists that launched the youth for climate movement in Belgium, internationally known as Fridays For Future. We went on strike for weeks and weeks, for more than a year. We worked together with scientists, politicians and activists. We recently sailed to Latin America to attend the CoP in Chile and to understand the threat to the Amazon Rainforest and the Global South facing the direct consequences of climate change.

After this, we felt like it was time for our activism to evolve and for us to get closer to the decision making process at the European level. We started an internship in the Greens/EFA Group in February 2020 and decided to write a regular blog to share information on the preparation of the European Green Deal within the Parliament.

We want to build the bridge between the climate activists in the streets and the politicians in the European Parliament. We would like to offer young activists more information about the internal trade-offs to pressure the right points, and debate with our politicians to show them there are millions of people all around the world ready and waiting for change.