At a moment when bond markets are baying for the eurozone’s blood and government leaders are fighting over economic reforms, an economic plan for 2050 might sound like a fanciful exercise in star-gazing. But the Commission’s “roadmap to a low-carbon economy in 2050” is much more important for the coming months and years than that date “2050” might suggest.
The use of the term “roadmap”, though hackneyed, is justified. This is not a 40-year plan. The Commission wants to trace a politically-neutral route on the most cost-effective way to cut emissions, setting out the technical issues rather than demanding political decisions. Officials are at pains to stress that the roadmap sets no targets for governments. Instead, it maps out “milestones”.
The analysis shows that the EU will have to cut its domestic emissions by around 80% by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels). But the cuts will not be spread equally around the economy, because different sectors offer different possibilities to become green. Power companies will be expected to lead the way. Already in the vanguard as frontrunners in the EU’s emissions-trading system (ETS), energy companies are expected to cut carbon-dioxide emissions by up to 99% by 2050.
A transformation is also expected of the industrial sector, which is expected to cut emissions by around 83%-89% in the same period. By contrast, agriculture – where the possibilities to cut emissions run into the limitations of a cow’s digestive tract – is expected to reduce emissions by 49% by 2050. This means that agriculture would represent one-third of EU emissions by the middle of the century, so putting its carbon footprint more under the spotlight.
But the most immediate, tough question is about the transport sector, the only part of the economy where emissions have gone up since 1990. In the short term, this trend could continue. Carbon emissions from transport (excluding shipping) could increase by 20% until 2030, according to this analysis. But the Commission hedges its bets: another possibility is a reduction in emissions of 17% by 2030. The uncertainty reflects doubts about transport technologies, especially electric cars. The Commission paper sees “a compelling case” for the EU to speed up the development of an electrified transport system. Otherwise the EU will come to rely heavily on biofuel to meet transport targets. Here, the paper sounds a sceptical note. Beyond a certain threshold, biofuel could lead to “increased pressures” on land use, water, biodiversity and environment, it states.
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More detailed thinking on transport will come with the publication of the Commission’s transport white paper. This was to have been published on 8 March with the low-carbon economy roadmap, but has been delayed until the end of the month. (The transport white paper also covers non-related issues, such as passenger rights and the single market, which was too much for the Commission’s internal consultation system to digest in time, according to an official).
The transport paper will be followed later in the year by an “energy roadmap”, which will elaborate how the power generation and transmission system can achieve a low-carbon transformation. These will be the first of many papers from different sectoral interests that are supposed to answer questions about how they can travel down the road mapped out here.