The EU Reaches A Climate Law

13 July 2021 /

7 min

… but getting to 2050 requires a deep acceleration of the green transition, perhaps more than we can conceive.

After more than a year of negotiation, the Council of the EU and the European Parliament came to an agreement on the EU Climate Law on April 21. 

In its essence, the Law legally binds all Member States to reduce carbon emissions at the European level. The Law sets an end goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

The result of heated negotiations and many contentions between member states and the EU Parliament, the agreement includes a target of “at least 55%” carbon emissions reduction by 2030. The intermediary target being slightly higher than the Commission’s initial proposal, it remains less than the Parliament’s 60% target and the scientific community’s advice of a 65% reduction. 

Although an essential agreement for the EU, climate activists were deeply disappointed in the target, pointing that 55% is not nearly enough to respect the Paris Agreement of keeping global warming below 1.5 degree Celsius. Youth activists who had demonstrated for months pre-covid demanded politicians listen to the science. With the most influential voice, Greta Thunberg called the deal a “surrender” in the face of the climate change emergency. 

Nonetheless, the Climate Law is quite ambitious considering the current pace at which the European Union has been decarbonising its industries, which initially aimed for a 40% reduction by 2030. Frans Timmermans, the Commissioner in charge of the European Green Deal, was highly sceptical of a higher target than 55%, saying it would be “bloody difficult” and would require the “sacrifice” of many different sectors. Thus, presenting the final deal as a sensible compromise which considers actors’ different positions in the Union.

Besides, the Climate Law is not a blueprint for how Member States will reach climate neutrality by 2050 – it is rather a framework. The European Union’s strategy to implement greener policies will be presented in July 2021, unveiling its “Fit for 55” package. The legislative bundle will gather revised energy and climate directives, such as the Emissions Trading System, the energy tax, or the directive regarding land use, that aims to put the Union on track for 2050. 

The publication of the final product is highly anticipated, as Directives should impose much more ambitious targets for Member States and include sectors thus far left out of such Directives. 

Indeed, getting to 2050 requires an essential overhaul of the EU’s current policies. Yet, the level of ambition of the revised directives has been the cause of discussions and concerns as the Commission has a poor habit of continuing business as usual. For instance, the revision of the Common Agricultural Policy was considered weak in terms of climate action at the European level and the Green Deal. Regarding the “Fit for 55” Package, the revision of environmental and energy directives needs to be significantly more ambitious if we want to make 2050 more than a utopian dream. 

Addressing the energy transition

Reforming the energy sector is unsurprisingly the primary contender in reaching climate neutrality. At the European level, energy is the biggest culprit of carbon emissions, responsible for 80% of emissions at the national level of a coal-dependent country like Poland. However, transforming the energy economy of a country is challenging in terms of ensuring energy security and affordability, which cannot be achieved overnight. For instance, Germany has been undergoing an energy transition, named the Energiewende, since 2010 and only plans to phase out coal by 2038. 

The International Energy Agency (IEA), the global energy watchdog, released a report presenting the world’s first roadmap to decarbonising the energy sector globally, emphasising the role of renewable energy. Although theoretically feasible, the IEA warns the pathway to net-zero emissions by 2050 is narrow, and the plan is immensely ambitious. For instance, it requires three times more annual investment in renewables, which the IEA illustrates as having to install “the world’s largest solar park roughly every day”. 

In its model, the IEA includes only existing technologies and argue the next decade should focus on deploying the electric grid with these clean technologies while phasing out fossil fuels. Wind, solar and hydro energy are the most obvious choice for clean alternatives. For countries where renewables sources are less reliable, the IEA supports nuclear as a foundation for the electrification of energy economies. 

In 2020, renewables became for the first time the prominent source of energy, making up 38% of Europe’s electricity against 37% for fossil-fired engines. Despite the good news, the current pace is too slow to reach the 2030 target, with not enough European countries moving onto renewables fast enough. In the EU, only Denmark produces more than half of its electricity with wind and solar, accounting for 62% of its electricity. Ireland and Germany hold second and third place, producing respectively around 30%. 

Yet, transitioning from one power source to another will not be sufficient to sustain energy security and affordability. Therefore, the European Commission promotes the principle of “energy efficiency first”, as the simplest way to reduce both carbon emissions and energy demand. However, the principle is still lagging far behind in the European Union. For instance, 90% of the building stock is energetically inefficient, though only 1% of buildings undergo energy efficiency renovation per year. The Commission’s response to the problem comes in the form of a “Renovation Wave Strategy” aiming at doubling renovation rates yearly as part of Member States’ recovery plan.

Building a consensus

Achieving the green transition will not be possible without governments imposing some constraints on industries, corporations, but also on individuals. Indeed, building a public consensus on climate action is immensely important as adhering to the Climate Law will require a significant change of our habits. 

When Ursula Von der Leyen announced her European Green Deal, she reiterated the notion that the green transition must be fair and inclusive. The Green Deal’s communication reads, “game-changing policies only work if citizens are fully involved in designing them. People are concerned about jobs, heating their homes, and making ends meet...”  

That notion becomes even more important when governments must implement environmental policies. Poorly designed policies that ignore the needs of its citizens creates dissent instead of support, as we experienced during the Gilet Jaunes movement. Steering climate action while excluding a part of the population is vowed to fail and slow down a transition that needs speeding up. 

However, this time around, circumstances have changed. On the one hand, the recovery plan negotiated over the summer, unlocking a large sum of European funds, have emphasised the green transition as a central element for countries’ energy and climate plans. On the other, the pandemic has also accelerated habits change. 

For instance, lockdowns have had a positive impact on urban mobility, whereas more habitant opted for soft mobility, such as walking or cycling. Like Paris or Brussels, major European cities increased bicycle lanes as a direct response to the health crisis. Post-pandemic, the objective is to keep these trends going up instead of going back to old habits. 

Moving globally 

For obvious reasons, climate change mitigation measures fall short if limited to national borders. So far, international environmental regimes have been widely ineffective in fighting climate change, with carbon emissions still on the rise.

Nonetheless, the world’s largest emitters are pledging to take serious actions against climate change. On its first day, Joe Biden rejoined the US to the Paris Agreement, reaffirming its commitment to net-zero emissions. China also pledged to cut carbon emissions by 2060, rolling out an enormous $27.5 billion plan. At last, Boris Johnson announced the UK would be cutting 78% of their carbon emissions by 2030, making the former EU member the most ambitious country. In turn, this creates a shift in international dynamics., whereas influential countries are setting the tone for the near future of trade policies.  

Thus, the European Union setting an ambitious target for itself also sends a strong message to its neighbours and trading partners. Indeed, it motivates more countries outside the EU’s borders to make ambitious pledges for reducing carbon emissions , thereby creating level-playing fields. 

Ultimately, the success of upcoming climate actions boils down to political leadership. Climate policies are only as efficient as their results. Though, failing to implement them properly would have dire consequences on climate change. Turning the goals of the Climate Law into reality requires a profound shift in European infrastructure, politics and habits. From the energy sector to mobility passing by many different sectors, our habits are about to evolve in the coming decade. Indeed, ten years is a short timeframe, but not an impossible one. 

[This article was first published in the issue 34 of the magazine]

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