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70 years later, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius concluded coal burning enhanced the natural greenhouse effect and there would be a few degrees Celsius of warming for a doubling of CO2 – just as modern-day climate models do. The definitive science of climate change is now compiled by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which today publishes its Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC. The study specifically looks at the impacts of this level of warming and emission pathways to achieve it. The report will show there is still time to move from commitments and pledges to action and that the tools to win the war on global warming are there. We are winning the technological battle, with the power sector and electric vehicles the poster child of the great improvements in clean tech of the last years. But we are winning too slowly – not because of costs or technology but due to resistance from incumbent industry and their influence on political decision makers.
Cars are a case in point. We were pleased with last week’s decision by the European Parliament to increase the ambition of the car and van CO2 standards. It was an incredibly tough fight to get a majority for the formidable Miriam Dalli’s clean car plan. But let’s not kid ourselves. This is not a great victory for the climate; the 40% reduction in new car CO2 from 2020 to 2030 is much less than the 60% needed to keep within our Paris Climate goals – let alone 1.5 degrees. The Parliament proposal is not a revolution or a radical transformation (as carmakers claim) only requiring around a third of cars to plug-in, in 12 years. 50% already do in Norway. A Greenpeace study estimates that to stay within 1.5 degrees the last car with an combustion engine must be sold in 2028. We can debate whether the cut-off date for internal combustion engine (ICE) cars is 2028-2030 (Norway, Netherlands), 2030 (Denmark) or 2040 (France, UK) but what’s not up for discussion is that we need to ramp up the number of zero-emission cars very considerably by 2030.
But if things were tough in the European Parliament, in the Council there is open warfare. A week ago 19 countries lead by France, the UK, Sweden and Netherlands, supported a cut of 40% but were agonisingly less than 1% short of the required majority. But the cheers from progressives in the European Parliament awoke the German government (and particular the CDU part of it - the SPD reportedly supported Parliament’s position), has sought to pick off the majority in favour of even a 35% cut. Poland (despite its dependency on Russian oil and new battery manufacturing) has shifted its position to align with Germany. In Spain the prime minister is ruling between fighting ministries. In Italy, coalition partners fight for supremacy. And even in France, President Macron first wavered after a nice dinner at the Paris Motor show, then decided to stick with the agreed line under fierce pressure not to yield to Germany. Environment ministers meet to thrash out an agreement tomorrow in Luxembourg – the outcome is far from certain. But if they yield on ambition a day after the IPCC report, it will be a serious setback in the battle to keep within 1.5 degrees.
The Commission’s extremely conservative approach to shifting to electric cars makes it likely that there will need to be much more aggressive action at national and local level in the coming years. This is likely to include sharp increases in fuel duties and banning cars from city centres. Ironically that’s exactly what has happened on air quality. The EU set air quality targets, failed to make new diesel cars clean and forced cities and national governments to take unilateral action.
In the classic cartoon movie Ice Age a squirrel is in perpetual pursuit of an elusive acorn blind to the global disasters about him. It is a metaphor for carmakers’ race to sell their ICEs and deliver the next quarter’s profits. We need politicians with vision and ambition that see the bigger picture and steer companies, however powerful, in a more sustainable direction. They must do this for the good of the citizens and to ensure the companies have a long-term future. A T&E survey shows 40% of citizens want to buy an electric car and two-thirds think carmakers aren’t doing enough to supply them. This is why ambitious regulation is needed. The Commission patently failed to do this; the European Parliament took a step in the right direction. We will shortly see what Council decides.