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EU environmental efforts must match reality in Marrakesh

The EU's image as a leading climate protector is at risk if it doesn't upscale ambition and plans for greening the planet. Current EU targets won't fulfill Paris pledges, much less whatever more is envisioned at COP22.

The European Union has always considered itself - and been seen - as a leader in combating climate change, but is that vaunted position a thing of the past? The United States and China, usually vilified as the world's top two emitters of greenhouse gases, beat Brussels to ratifying the Paris Agreement. Heading into Friday's COP22 climate summit in Marrakesh, are EU leaders continuing to coast on promises that have been overtaken by reality?

European Climate Action and Energy Commissioner Miguel Arias Canete came home from the Paris climate meeting last December crowing about the accomplishments there, particularly those of the EU, which he credited with being a driving force behind the creation of the so-called "Paris Agreement." The world's first climate deal goes into effect Friday, pledging to hold the globe's average temperatures to "well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels" and to try to limit that even further, to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The deal also commits governments to come up with the financing and technology to help combat the effects of climate change on vulnerable countries. 

"We must enjoy this historic moment," Canete told a press briefing in Brussels at the time, while underscoring the hard road ahead to see the agreement implemented. "The economic and social crisis has tested the limits of solidarity and questioned the confidence of Europeans in their leaders. Today, Europeans should be proud of Europe. We should all be proud of Europe. We made a major contribution for a deal to happen in Paris."

But it's what the commissioner did not say that baffled Alice Stollmeyer, a leading digital-advocacy strategist focused on environmental issues. Stollmeyer said she watched Canete speak that day with disbelief, because the previous targets which EU leaders agreed in October 2014 cannot possibly fulfill the new Paris pledges.

 "I remember watching and my mouth dropped open wide because I was like 'wait a minute, what is he saying? We are not going to increase our October 2014 commitments in line with Paris?'" Stollmeyer recalled. Those measures include cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels and enforcing binding targets for at least 27 percent of energy usage to come from renewable sources.

"This is still the current commission position," Stollmeyer explained disapprovingly. "They do not want to break open what was agreed in October 2014 - which means our current and even future climate policies are not in line with the Paris agreement." 

Climate change won't wait

Stollmeyer says the EU's plan is to wait a couple of years for a new report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which will examine the impact of a 1.5 degree Celsius temperature goal, and then adjust. That's unacceptable, she told DW.

"We don't have time - this is too urgent," she said. "We cannot wait, like we've done since the 70s, for yet another study. There's enough knowledge and science out there to already know that even the current October 2014 2030 climate goals are not in line with 2 degrees Celsius let alone 1.5 degrees Celsius. So we have all the reasons to increase not only the speed but also the ambition of what we are doing pre-2020."

Echoing Stollmeyer's sense of urgency heading into the COP22 meeting, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) released its annual "emissions gap" survey with a foreboding message it hopes will be a "wakeup call to the world:"

"Greater pre-2020 action is the last chance" for any realistic possibility of achieving the 1.5 degree Celsius goal. 

UNEP's analysis looks at what the maximum level of emissions would have to be to achieve the Paris Agreement goals of either 2 or 1.5 degrees by 2030. "Against these limits," the report concludes, "emissions have actually been increasing."

In environmental matters, eyes often turn to the Green party, which has always made environmental protection one of its political priorities. Co-chair of the European Parliament's Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance, Rebecca Harms, acknowledges the EU's targets have "not been ambitious enough." She told DW the bloc must "really take seriously" what it has signed in Paris and now ratified, noting that for Europeans the implications of delaying action might not seem so urgent, but in some developing countries they are suffering the effects of climate change already. 

Harms said the EU tends to ignore situations it doesn't want to confront until they become overwhelming. She cites the refugee crisis as one such example, noting that this precise problem will become much more acute as more habitats become unlivable due to climate change and its effects. 

Fudging figures?

There are accusations of big talk and little action on other aspects of climate-change measures, too. Oxfam has released a pre-COP22 "Climate Finance Shadow Report" which claims rich countries are misrepresenting the amount they're spending to help mitigate the impact of climate change. 

The Oxfam study shows that while developed nations report spending $41 billion (37 billion euros) per year combating climate change, the net worth of those dollars ends up being just $11 to $21 billion. And from that reduced figure, Oxfam says as little as $4 to $8 billion is actually used to help developing countries deal with climate-change problems.  Further, the organization says even the methods of calculating these figures are so different among countries that it's difficult to get the real picture.

Green lawmaker: move fast in Marrakesh

MEP Harms urges the EU to move back into a leading position in Marrakesh and address all these issues, taking her own country to task specifically. Germany, the EU's largest economy and formerly considered a pioneer in combating climate change, does not have its national plan in order to present at COP22, due to domestic politics.  "It is a very negative sign for the international climate community," Harms told DW, "that the German minister of environment has to travel to Marrakesh empty-handed."

On a larger scale, she warns all governments that "it's not enough to celebrate the quick ratification of Paris" and follow-up is needed just as rapidly.  "If we now decide to put aside the climate crisis," she said, "we will pay at a later time for our laziness."