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Parliament tries to boost climate efforts as emissions and temperatures soar

The EU likes to talk up its world-beating progress on climate change, but the numbers show the ride to climate neutrality won’t be smooth.

Here’s two: 40 and over 1 billion.

The first is the temperature — 40 degrees — likely to be hit in Spain this week as the country enters what the State Meteorological Agency called an “extraordinary” heat episode for May.

Climate change is already driving extreme weather across Europe. But the bloc’s push to become the world’s first carbon-neutral continent has lost ground in recent months.

The EU released over 1 billion tons of planet-heating CO2 or similar gases into the atmosphere in the final three months of 2021. That finding, released Monday, showed the bloc’s emissions had surged back to levels not seen since 2018, before the pandemic slammed on the economic brakes.

Those numbers put a sharp focus on the machinations in the European Parliament’s environment committee, which laid out its positions on a major suite of climate legislation on Tuesday.

MEPs voted to strengthen the EU’s proposed Fit for 55 package — designed to meet the EU’s legally binding goal to cut emissions 55 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. 

The package is critical, said Lucie Mattera, head of EU politics at the E3G think tank, because it can “make sure that the EU does not just have a plan, but a plan that is executed at the right speed and at the right scale.”

MEPs hailed Tuesday’s outcome as a success.

“I think this is the best we could hope for,” said Jytte Guteland, a lead center-left lawmaker on climate policy. “I think this is a good and stable result that shows the will of [the environment committee] to respect the EU climate law and also the Paris Agreement.”

Some industry groups were less pleased, with the BusinessEurope lobby warning the bloc’s economy would “pay a heavy price” if the committee’s positions become law.

It’s expected the legislation will face tough opposition from EU capitals. Perhaps anticipating this, last month EU Green Deal Frans Timmermans urged the environment committee to be his allies in keeping the proposals strong.

On Tuesday, they voted for changes to several plans that would result in deeper emissions cuts than the original Commission proposals, from higher carbon sink targets to a faster phaseout of free pollution licenses for industry. 

Although the final votes on the committee’s positions were decisive, there were much narrower margins for core elements of the reform of the EU’s Emissions Trading System, which covers about 40 percent of the bloc’s total greenhouse gas pollution. 

A left-leaning alliance passed an amendment to set a tougher limit on emissions for sectors covered under the carbon market against fierce opposition from conservative factions, winning the vote by 46 to 41. 

It’s unclear whether the narrow committee majority can hold when the full Parliament votes in June; center-right lawmakers have already said they plan to mount another attempt to kill the amendment.

Conservatives see the left-wing groups’ ETS changes as “problematic” because the EU “is in a big crisis, and we need to replace Russian gas,” said center-right MEP Peter Liese.

“There will be some coal to replace Russian gas. Coal is dirty. But the war in Ukraine is dirtier. And that’s why we have to accept some coal to replace Russian gas and this would contradict with a huge step up” on capping emissions in the near term, he added.

That point was emphasized Monday when data showed pollution has surged back to pre-pandemic levels. 

The European Commission did not respond to repeated requests on Tuesday to explain the emissions increase. But analysts said the jump was driven in part by the resurgence of coal burning. Countries have responded to record high natural gas prices by switching on their coal plants, said Refintiv carbon analyst Yan Qin. Elevated emissions are likely to continue through this year, as the EU does whatever it takes to keep the lights on while also cutting its dependence on Russian gas.

That doesn’t change the steady underlying growth of renewable energy, said Qin. “I am optimistic that the short rebound in emissions is just a bump on the road to green transition and does not hamper the decarbonization efforts.”

Nevertheless, it’s embarrassing for the EU, said E3G’s Mattera, otherwise “our international partners will start questioning the credibility of our commitments.”

The Commission will seek to spur the acceleration away from both coal and Russia gas on Wednesday with a set of proposals designed to boost renewable energy and energy efficiency. 

Those measures will largely depend on Europe’s capitals to put them into action. For example by fitting all new buildings with solar panels, or, as the Netherlands announced last week, a mandate that all central heating refits will replace old gas boilers with heat pumps.

Belgian Greens MEP Saskia Bricmont tweeted that there was “one solution” to the rise in emissions in 2021: “Accelerate the energy transition to decarbonize.”

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