05 Mar 2020   |   Viewpoint

Viewpoint: Legal move on climate must be backed by game plan on carbon neutrality

Draft of climate law released this week is the first test of the European Green Deal. Success now rests on reshaping each aspect of EU policy

Léa Pilsner (left) and Sara Dethier are researchers at E3G

The announcement of the draft EU climate law on Wednesday is a major milestone. It puts a bold marker down, making climate neutrality by 2050 one of the main principles guiding Europe in the coming decades. It’s an absolutely essential policy and its clear, unambiguous goal will help ensure consistency of EU legislation.

Just as importantly, the climate law is an early test for the European Green Deal. The fact is all policies at the EU level - and eventually at the national level - must align in order to achieve climate neutrality.

In this respect, Europe’s research and innovation policy is an area where the need for coordination and alignment is most pressing. The EU economy simply cannot fully decarbonise by 2050 without tools, technologies and know how generated in EU-funded R&D.

As things stand, there is little insight into how this shift in focus will be achieved. As EU President Ursula von der Leyen prepares to mark her 100th day in office, this must change.

We need an R&I game plan

Research and innovation can help deliver some of the most important elements of the European green deal, accelerating the decarbonisation of Europe’s economy, whilst retaining a competitive edge and advancing social progress.

Europe needs to rapidly scale up the deployment of existing technologies, including smart grids and electric vehicles. New technologies such as carbon neutral industrial processes need more support, as many of them are still at early stages of development. Too often, they lie just out of reach of commercial viability and EU policy instruments should be designed to give these kinds of truly transformative technologies the boost they need. Doing so not only accelerates decarbonisation, it also sharpens Europe’s global competitive edge.

Research and innovation can also play an important role in promoting social progress across the diverse regions of the continent, as clean technologies often have social dimensions, notably job creation and pollution reduction, that add to their attractiveness. These factors should be taken into account.

Europe needs a roadmap to bring these dimensions together.

Walking the walk

Von der Leyen emphasised the importance of research in her European green deal communication, saying “[It] is on the one hand about cutting emissions, but on the other hand it is about creating jobs and boosting innovation.” Research and innovation features in a majority of the initiatives proposed. For example, the European Green Deal Investment Plan recognises the need to support key enabling technologies and innovation. Yet there are no specific legislative proposals relating to research and innovation under the European green deal.

Communications on the future of research and innovation, the European Research Area and the Horizon Europe research missions are planned for later this year. This could be an opportunity to restructure EU research around a mission to deliver climate neutrality.

Looking at proposals so far, most are adjustments of existing programmes such as Horizon 2020 and NER 300, (the low-carbon energy demonstration projects that are funded by the EU emissions trading scheme), rather than a re-thinking of how to structure R&D policy to address the climate crisis. Such piecemeal proposals are not only inadequate – they come at the expense of the deeper, more fundamental changes this moment demands.

With a proposed €35 billion budget to support climate objectives, Horizon Europe is the European Commission’s main R&D programme. Bolstered by a €10 billion Innovation Fund and proposals to leverage an EU budget guarantee to mobilise green private and public investments, it certainly has capacity to boost research and innovation in relevant technologies.

But for now, these remain funding mechanisms - rather than a strategy in itself. As such, they cannot control how the commission mainstreams EU innovation for decarbonisation.

Focus R&D on decarbonisation

Research and innovation policy must be refocused around the goal of decarbonisation and how it will contribute to climate neutrality. Such an agenda should be underpinned by the following principles:

  • Establish net-zero as the overarching mission of research and innovation policy;
  • Take concrete, sector-specific measures that focus on early action and results, combined with an alignment of all EU research-related funds;
  • Think beyond the technology, to mainstream social dimensions into all research and innovation initiatives, in order to address what is essentially a socio-economic transition;
  • Reconcile competitiveness with decarbonisation by creating incentives for industry to fully decarbonise;
  • Use research and innovation policy to bridge Europe’s east-west divide, and combine it with Just Transition measures to protect workers’ rights during the shift to carbon neutrality;
  • Leverage EU research and innovation for decarbonisation to underpin the European Green Deal ambition of supporting non-EU third countries in the move to carbon neutrality.

Léa Pilsner and Sara Dethier are researchers at E3G, a climate change think tank

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