The world’s biggest polluters don’t want to keep up with the EU in cutting greenhouse gas emissions

Environment - August 8, 2023

It is well known that the main driver of climate change is carbon dioxide emissions. The EU is putting pressure on big polluters to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible to avoid a climate catastrophe. More or less directly, the European Union, which has cut its emissions by about a third over the past three decades, has set itself ambitious targets. The planet’s big polluters China, the US, India, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Brazil do not seem to want to keep up with Europe and reduce greenhouse gas emissions like the EU countries. The EU has also failed to stand up to the world’s biggest polluters when it comes to covering the damage caused by climate change, which polluters should pay for. No one is committing to this for fear of an endless string of financial claims.

European officials told the Financial Times that they also want large economies such as China, India and the US to shoulder some of the burden financially, as consumers and businesses in Europe begin to become dissatisfied with the costs of the necessary green transformation of the energy system. Currently, the world’s biggest polluters are the US, China and India, closely followed by countries with large populations such as Bangladesh, Egypt, Brazil and, barely at the bottom of the list of big polluters, the EU Member States. Germany, for example, one of the EU’s most industrialised countries and considered the engine of Europe, is not even in the top five polluters worldwide.

According to an analysis that provided the first measure of the responsibility of nations in fuelling the climate crisis, the US has caused more than $1.9 trillion in damage to other countries due to greenhouse gas emissions.  The huge volume of greenhouse gases generated by the US, which has contributed to global warming, has caused economic damage to other, largely poor, countries by producing heatwaves and failed crops so that the US is found responsible for global revenue losses of more than $1.91 trillion from 1990 to 2022, according to The Guardian, cited by DW. This puts the US ahead of China, Russia, India and Brazil, the next biggest contributors to global economic damage through their emissions. Combined, the five countries listed above have caused a total of $6 trillion in global losses, or about 11% of annual global GDP by fueling climate change.

Some EU Member States, including Poland and Romania, oppose improving the targets

The proportion of global greenhouse emissions for which the EU is responsible has fallen from 16.8% in 1990 to 7.3% in 2021, according to European Commission data. The EU has reduced its emissions by about a third, mainly by partially eliminating dirty coal from energy production, while China’s and India’s emissions have risen – along with global energy demand.

But the EU is now grappling with internal disagreements over emissions reduction targets for 2040. Geopolitical tensions over climate strategies are mounting as governments grapple with overstretched budgets, while extreme weather is heightening fears of global warming. Global emissions would have to fall by 43% by 2030 to meet the Paris target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. According to the UN Environment Programme, the planet is now on a trajectory to warm by 2.4-2.6 degrees by 2100.

The EU is committed to reducing its emissions by 55% by 2030 and to reaching net zero in 2050, with the 2040 target as an interim target. A draft document prepared by EU countries for COP28 and seen by the Financial Times contains a paragraph marked with square brackets, meaning it could be amended by the UN conference in December, committing the EU to increase its contribution from 55% to 57%.

The EU’s main scientific council has even proposed a figure of 95%. But EU officials doubt this is politically feasible, given the European elections due in June 2024. EU diplomats have said they are having “difficult discussions” about the 2040 target with Poland and Romania, in addition to other EU countries opposed to improving targets. There are also countries that want to speed up action. Jennifer Morgan, Germany’s special representative for climate policy, said the target should not be “just a figure – it should be a driver for modernisation and adaptation of our companies and communities”. It’s a view shared by several EU environment ministers, who last week discussed climate progress in Spain.

EU would like to persuade China to take on higher targets

MEPs are concerned that the backlash against the green transition could grow as EU industry is squeezed by US competition, which currently benefits from low energy costs and subsidies thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act, while China dominates green technology supply chains.

“If we could convince China to take on high emission reduction targets, the EU would have more space,” an EU official said.

The commission recently warned that without an ambitious target, “the EU would risk missing its domestic 2050 climate target and possibly undermining its ability to drive international climate action”.

EU wants polluters worldwide to pay for pollution

Until the proposed targets are met, polluters should pay for the damage that climate change causes. At last year’s climate summit in Egypt, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres told participants they had two choices: either work together to reduce emissions or condemn future generations to climate catastrophe. 

“We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator,” Guterres warned, directly calling on China and the US, the world’s largest economies, to work together. 

At the same summit, the idea – put forward by EU representatives – of imposing climate change damage charges on polluters in developing countries was discussed.

“Now it’s important to sit down at the table and really define and establish what this is all about and then look at the funding available.  And I’m not talking about the 100 billion that is earmarked for climate finance. In this case, the European Union also has its part to contribute with more than 23 billion, but I’m talking about other funds that we need to look at,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at the time.

World leaders have so far refused to make such a commitment for fear of a possible endless string of financial demands.

In the EU, the polluter pays principle works. But inefficient

The polluter pays principle (PPP), on which EU environmental policy is based, is, however, ineffectively applied within the EU bloc, according to a report by the European Court of Auditors. In “Special Report 12/2021: The polluter pays principle: inconsistent application in EU environmental policies and actions”, the European Court of Auditors (ECA) examined whether this principle has been correctly applied in four areas of environmental policy: industrial pollution, waste, water and soil.

The findings of the report made available to the European Commission reveal that the Polluter Pays Principle (PPP) is reflected to varying degrees in different EU environmental policies and that its coverage and application is incomplete. As regards industrial emissions, the Court concluded that the PPP applies to the most polluting industrial installations, which are covered by the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), but not to smaller installations and does not require owners to cover the cost of residual pollution to society. The Court also found that although many pieces of legislation indirectly contribute to reducing pressures on the environment, there is no general EU framework for soil protection.

In the area of water pollution, one of the problems highlighted in the report is that the price paid by large water users is too low and insufficient to cover the costs of clean-up. The polluter pays principle was introduced in 1972 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The PPP states that the polluter should bear the costs associated with the implementation of pollution prevention and control measures taken by public authorities to bring the environment to an acceptable state. Policy-makers have been able to use this principle over time to reduce pollution and rehabilitate the environment.