This is one of the key figures of the long-awaited first general policy speech that Ursula von der Leyen, the new president of the European Commission, delivered on Wednesday September 16th.

In her portrait of a European Union emerging with its head held high from the Covid-19 pandemic, she insisted on a new goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions: 55% compared to the level of the 1990s by to 2030 instead of the 40% forecast until then.

This upwardly revised climate ambition "will reduce our dependence on energy imports, create millions of additional jobs and reduce air pollution by more than half," she added.

Ursula von der Leyen also puts the European bloc "resolutely on the path to meeting its obligations under the Paris agreement [2015 climate agreement so as not to exceed a temperature rise of 2 ° C compared to the pre-industrial era, Editor's note] ", she wants to believe.

Semantic modification

Ursula von der Leyen knows that she is not going to make only friends with this proposal.

"I recognize that this increase from 40% to 55% is too large for some and insufficient for others," she said.

A reference to the European Parliament's Environment Committee which voted last week on a motion to push the plug even further and aim for a 60% reduction in emissions by 2030.

But above all, some are calling for this commitment to be made with a grain of salt.

A draft of European legislation supposed to set in stone the new climate target, obtained by The Guardian and the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, raises fears of a trompe-l'oeil ambition.

This document calls for an effort to reduce "net emissions" by 55% by 2030. A previous version, made public in March, was content to mention "emissions", that is to say all the greenhouse gas produced by human activity.

The addition of the qualifier "net" may change everything, if this wording is adopted.

Brussels could deduce from polluting emissions from industries, automobiles or even agriculture, the CO2 captured by natural carbon sinks, such as forests. 

The specter of this semantic modification has made NGOs like Greenpeace leap.

"The climate objectives of 2030 must be achieved by in-depth changes in the way the industry operates, an acceleration of the energy transition and not by creative accounting", responded Sebastian Mang, climate specialist for Greenpeace , interviewed by the Süddeutsche Zeitung. 

It must be said that in "theory, if we take into account natural carbon sinks, the stated objective of a 55% reduction may become less ambitious than that of reaching 40% by counting only the emissions produced by human activity ", assures Philippe Ciais, associate director of the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences (LSCE), contacted by France 24. 

Uncertainty and lack of transparency

Indeed, while it is easy to measure the greenhouse gases emitted by each European country, this is not the case for the CO2 captured by natural sinks.

"It is estimated, for example, at 30% the margin of error in measuring the amount of carbon stored by forests," notes this researcher. 

In addition, "if we know more or less how to account for past CO2 capture, predicting what will happen in the future is much harder, if only because the storage capacity of forests varies by a year after year, depending on a large number of factors ", explains Jérôme Chave, CNRS researcher in the evolution and biological diversity laboratory, contacted by France 24.

Taking natural sinks into account to measure efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would thus introduce an element of uncertainty and a lack of transparency in European accounting.

"If a country claims that its soils capture 20% of CO2, it is difficult to control and we cannot oppose it", notes Philippe Ciais.

In other words, the fear is that these natural carbon sinks will become sliders that states could use to minimize their emissions. 

But for Jerome Chave the problem is even deeper.

"Implicitly, the debate is whether we can offset future emissions, which could lead to giving industrialists a blank check to continue to pollute," says the CNRS researcher.

The logic would be to say that we are going to plant more forests, find more and more alternative solutions to store carbon in order to reduce the pressure on the economy to become more "green".

This is not to say that promoting natural sinks is not, in itself, positive.

"If this leads to the development of more forests in Europe, so much the better", recognizes Philippe Ciais.

But for him, the European Commission should continue to set a clear course for reducing emissions, to which we could add an additional objective taking into account natural carbon sinks. 

This may be what the Commission will ultimately decide.

The details of Ursula von der Leyen's plan are due to be released on Thursday, and nothing is yet to be decided on the draft legislation.

The leaked text also contains proposals to push sectors such as transport or aviation to do more in terms of reducing emissions, or to promote more sustainable management of forests, notes the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

But to achieve its stated goal of becoming the first in the climate class, Europe should not take questionable accounting shortcuts.

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