Since the European Commission came out with the first part of its ‘Fit for 55’ package of climate measures in July 2021, a lot has happened in the climate world. Last month, countries agreed the Glasgow Climate Pact at COP26, which called for accelerated action to keep global temperature rise to below 1.5°C. Many countries agreed to end public financing for coal, oil and gas projects abroad. The new German government, which took office last week, has pledged to be more ambitious on climate action.
Yet despite this increase in global ambition in recent months, when comparing today’s ‘Fit for 55’ proposals with the ones released over the summer, a decrease in ambition is evident. The Commission saved some of the politically most difficult elements of the package until now, and the result is that the proposals put forward in the closing days of 2021 are considerably more cautious than what was put forward in July. Today’s package, and an accompanying EU taxonomy decision expected next week that may designate gas a sustainable transition fuel, send mixed signals to the international community about how serious the EU is about phasing out fossil fuels.
With its proposals on the energy performance of buildings, methane and gas, the Commission has stepped away from proposing measures that might prove politically contentious with member state governments. Rather than setting a phase-out date for fossil fuel boilers in homes, it has merely clarified the legal basis by which national governments can do so if they wish. Rather than setting a phase-out date for new gas infrastructure, it has allowed countries to keep building with the idea (some would say, artifice) that the pipelines will be used for hydrogen transport in future. In addition, rather than tackling methane at global level, the Commission has outlined a framework to tackle methane emissions in Europe, which is not where the problem lies.
NGOs have voiced frustration at what they see as a lack of ambition on these proposals. “We can’t say what we said in Glasgow and then go home and ignore our responsibility,” says Tim Gabriel from the Environmental Investigation Agency. He points out, for instance, that while the first-ever EU methane regulation requires leaks to be repaired and routine venting and flaring eliminated, it does not deal with the methane emissions caused by fossil fuels imported into the EU from elsewhere. “Most methane emissions associated with oil, gas and coal occur outside the EU [and] this does very little to mitigate that,” he says. “It’s woefully inadequate and not going to keep us within 1.5. degrees.” The Commission should have required compliance for all imports, he says.
On the gas proposal, NGOs are similarly unimpressed. “We only see a mirroring of the existing clean energy package,” says Raphael Hanoteaux from climate think tank E3G. “This is all fine, but it does not really go to the heart of the question, which is how can we help households to switch away from fossil gas towards renewable-based solutions?” E3G calculates that the Commission’s proposal is not enough to meet its emissions-reduction goals [see below]. One particularly worrying aspect is that the proposal defines all hydrogen to be “low-carbon” if its meets a greenhouse gas reduction potential of 70%. This would seem to contradict the EU goal of a full decarbonisation to net zero by 2050 at the latest. It risks opening the door for supporting hydrogen projects that may never be able to achieve a 100% greenhouse gas reduction.
The NGOs point out that the gas lobby has welcomed the Commission proposal. James Watson, secretary general of industry association Eurogas, said on 15 December: “The European Commission gets the message that gases are good for the energy transition, for industry and for households across Europe."
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The latest proposals are all the more disappointing when weighed against the genuinely impressive 'Fit for 55' part I package put forward in July. This contained initiatives that the EU executive will have to fight to defend, such as the carbon border adjustment mechanism, which is opposed by Germany. The three proposals released today, however, appear to be designed to ensure passage in the Council, the EU legislature's upper house, made up of national government ministers.
To match the urgency conveyed in her speeches, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen needs to make bold proposals that some national governments will inevitably resist. She has the support of the majority in the European Parliament. As the various parts of 'Fit for 55' work their way through the legislative process and face death by a thousand cuts in the Council, the Commission’s weak starting point on the three latecomer proposals today is not a promising sign.