EU member states dashed hopes last month of committing the bloc to a collective goal of “net zero” emissions by mid-century.
A group of four countries, led by Poland, blocked the inclusion of a specific deadline for climate neutrality at the EU Council session.
The outcome is largely seen as a temporary setback. “It's a bump in the road, rather than the end of the road,” says Quentin Genard, acting head of the Brussels office at environmental thinktank E3G. Poland has since indicated support for a net zero goal to be set by the end of the year.
Efforts towards net zero have been building steadily in Europe over the past two years. Several EU countries such as France and Germany have already proposed or adopted climate neutrality goals.
Net zero momentum
The climate neutrality goal would effectively commit the EU to not releasing any more greenhouse gases than it absorbs by mid-century. The finer details, such as the use of international carbon credits to achieve this or how the goal would be split up between countries, are yet to be decided.
The idea has been on the cards since the 2015 Paris Agreement but rose up the agenda following the release last year of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s special report on warming at 1.5 degrees.
Popular pressure, such as through the youth climate strike movement and Extinction Rebellion, has also played a role. Meanwhile, the green surge in the EU elections in May means environmentalist parties could hold the balance of power in the European parliament.
Countries are also moving unilaterally. Just last month, the UK committed to revising up its 2050 climate goal to net zero, while Finland’s new coalition government has pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2035.
France has spearheaded the calls for a net zero goal at the EU level. However, it was Germany’s decision, under growing political pressure at home, to join the push earlier last month that raised optimism EU leaders could formally agree to the goal. This was not a given: Germany, like Poland, is concerned about raising the EU’s climate goals due to the possible impact on employment in its coal heartlands.
Concrete developments towards the EU goal began in November 2018, when the European Commission put forward a proposal for a climate-neutral economy by 2050. A net zero goal is not only feasible for Europe, it said, but an opportunity to increase its competitiveness and build new markets.
In March 2019, the EU parliament voted in support of a net-zero 2050 target as well as an increase of the EU’s 2030 emission reduction target from 40% to 55%.
But while the outcome text included a pledge to ensure a transition to a climate-neutral EU “in line with the Paris Agreement”, it failed to include the all crucial “by 2050”.
Unanimous approval from the 28 EU member states was needed to adopt the target but Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Estonia did not support it.
“The number of member states opposed has been shrinking over time, so it was a minority in favour in March and then at the start of last week it was 18,” says Diarmuid Torney, an assistant professor in law and climate politics at Dublin City University.
Slovakia normally coordinates with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic as part of the Visegrád Four political alliance. “What is remarkable is that Slovakia decided not to follow them because of the new president,” says Genard, referring to the country’s first female president, green campaigner Zuzana Čaputová.
Poland's prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said he blocked the climate goal to “protect the interest of Polish businesses and Polish citizens”. He emphasised the need for concrete financial measures to be on the table before he could sign up for a deal.
This points to the importance of EU money supporting a just transition for workers strongly impacted by a tough climate goal, such as those working in Poland’s coal industry. This will need to be discussed, says Genard, but will be a fine line since the more progressive countries may be hesitant to reward countries for blocking the decision. Bulgaria and Romania have similar concerns to Poland but did not block the goal.
“It’s not surprising that particularly those member states that are heavily reliant on coal such as Poland are reluctant to come on board,” says Torney. “What net zero means is fundamentally re-engineering our modern economies to shift them not just incrementally away from fossil fuels but in a transformational way.”
Genard says two other factors likely contributed to the deal being blocked.
Firstly, Poland’s upcoming elections. “Climate is not perceived as a topic that's going to make you win elections,” says Genard. Standing up to EU imposition of measures on the national economy, on the other hand, may be seen as a vote winner.
Secondly, there are still doubts about the meaning of an EU-wide net zero target by 2050 for individual countries. “The aim was really to fix the political objective, and then figure out the detail about how we're going to do it,” says Genard. But this has left Poland unclear about whether there would be some flexibility within the wider goal for countries finding it harder to decarbonise. “What it shows is there needs to be discussion on addressing the concerns that were raised by these countries,” says Genard.
However, Poland this week indicated it may support the 2050 target by the end of 2019. “We will probably subscribe to this target, it’s just we need to know what the cost will be, and in what way we can mitigate the social impact of the whole transformation,” Tomasz Dąbrowski, Poland’s undersecretary of state for energy, said at a conference in London on Thursday.
He added this would require “some kind of compensation mechanism” to address the costs Poland would bear.
The EU is now unlikely to arrive at the UN climate summit in September with a 2050 goal in place and the extra legitimacy to encourage others to raise ambition ahead of the next round of climate pledges in 2020.
While the focus of the summit is on goals for the next 10-15 years, 2050 targets are also seen as important goalposts for setting these.
“It’s unfortunate, from that kind of signalling perspective, what it shows to the rest of the world,” says Torney.
The Paris Agreement also commits parties to submit a long term climate plan to the UN by 2020. But the EU could stick to outlining its current 2050 climate goal, which somewhat broadly promises a 80-95% reduction in emissions compared to 1990 levels.
Green NGOs are also still pushing the EU to commit to net zero emissions by 2040, as well as update its 2030 climate target. Climate Action Network Europe and Greenpeace both called for an emergency EU summit to try to reach a deal ahead of the September summit.
Torney adds that the net zero goal, and accompanying climate finance and support for countries that face a tougher transition away from fossil fuels could be tied into EU budget negotiations due to be concluded next year. The EU parliament has already proposed an extra €5bn for a “just transition fund”.
“It's complicated because we want to have a proper, a well-mannered transition, and that takes time,” says Genard. “We need to have everyone on board.”