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Mapping out policy priorities for a carbon-neutral EU

EU-funded researchers have mapped out possible pathways to achieve the drastic technological, economic and societal transformations needed for the EU to become carbon neutral by 2050, meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement and lead global efforts to tackle climate change.

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The far-reaching climate policy recommendations to accelerate climate action, based on in-depth research across multiple sectors and disciplines conducted in the EU-funded COP21 RIPPLES project, are now being taken on-board by national and EU policymakers, as well as internationally within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) ahead of the COP26 climate change conference in 2021.

‘With the European Commission, we have found a number of our initial recommendations resonating in the European Green Deal,’ says COP21 RIPPLES coordinator Dr Marta Torres-Gunfaus, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI) in France.

‘We also understand that a more sectoral approach is under consideration, both at UNFCCC level and within the EU, as well as the enhancement of multidisciplinary approaches to implementing the changes needed to address climate change.’

The COP21 RIPPLES team analysed the transformations in energy systems, transport, industry, finance and other sectors that are required for countries to meet their nationally determined contributions to mitigate climate change under the Paris Agreement. The researchers investigated the steps needed to achieve deeper and more ambitious decarbonisation targets by 2030, which would make carbon neutrality achievable by 2050, as well as the socio-economic consequences that this transition would trigger.

More ambitious action, sooner

Among the many important recommendations to emerge from COP21 RIPPLES, Torres-Gunfaus highlights six overarching priorities for policymakers and stakeholders. These emphasise more action sooner, driven by more ambitious EU targets and led by Member States, while focusing on the opportunities and challenges within each economic sector.

‘Sectoral approaches facilitate understanding of transformation drivers and appraisal of policy options by individual stakeholders in different sectors of the economy, open the door for discussions framed in terms of economic and social progress, and are a prerequisite for international governance to be strengthened,’ according to the researchers.

While the transformational priorities of each sector – from energy and transport to services and finance – differ substantially, all will benefit from gaining an early understanding of what is at stake and the solutions available.

The COP21 RIPPLES researchers point out that early investment to foster understanding, learning and training reduces decarbonisation costs in the long term and offers economic opportunities for countries to develop new low carbon technologies and sectors. In turn, countries should concentrate on promising technologies, innovation and exploiting individual regional strengths, while ensuring industrial transformation is at the heart of decarbonisation strategies.

‘A major challenge is to move from inward-focused national decarbonisation strategies to national strategies that conceive a global pathway for the transformation of different industrial sub-sectors in the context of a globalised world, where not all countries will be able to specialise in all the key low-carbon technologies and where international cooperation can make a big difference,’ Torres-Gunfaus says.

‘Another important challenge relates to the financial system: finance cannot limit itself to growing green niches and must stop investing in carbon-intensive assets,’ she adds.

Instead of underpinning unsustainable consumerism, the financial sector must undergo a deep transformation to support long-termism, the public interest and the common good of a stable climate. The researchers point out that this requires making the entire financial system sustainable, not just adding a layer of investment solutions, regulation and policy options under the label ‘sustainable finance’.

Country-driven transformation

For effective transformation to take place across sectors as diverse as industry and finance, policy action will be essential at all levels, but the key drivers of change are most likely to take root within countries. The project team therefore suggest adopting a country-driven approach as the most effective way to deliver more ambitious and politically resilient commitments to decarbonisation targets within the next 10 years. This would need to be supported by adequacy assessments to inform policy debates and track progress, addressing different inter-connected dimensions: governance, economic and social, sectoral and physical transformations, as well as emission-reduction targets.

‘Increasing pre-2030 ambition leads to a smoother, more realistic transition, avoiding asking comparatively more of a specific sector, which may increase acceptability problems. For this, Member States must be equipped to define their own role in the EU long-term transformation towards carbon neutrality in order to inform coherent EU-level investments, cooperation strategies and solidarity mechanisms,’ Torres-Gunfaus says.

In producing a truly integrated systemic analysis of transition pathways, their socio-economic implications and the enabling environment, the COP21 RIPPLES project brought together leading European researchers across fields as diverse as energy systems, climate policy analysis, macroeconomic modelling, climate finance, international environmental law, international relations and political science.

‘The partners are interested in further advancing the research agenda, particularly on developing national capabilities to inform countries’ transformations. Many of them will continue working together with the ambition to mature transdisciplinary approaches to the challenges ahead,’ the project coordinator concludes.

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Project details

Project acronym
Project number
Project coordinator: France
Project participants:
South Africa
United Kingdom
Total cost
€ 2 986 923
EU Contribution
€ 2 986 923
Project duration

See also

More information about project COP21 RIPPLES

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