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Can Europe become 'world's first climate-neutral continent'? Von der Leyen thinks so

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen   -   Copyright  REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday unveiled her plans to make the EU the world's "first climate-neutral continent" but some proposals are likely to ruffle feathers in several member states.

Among the measures that she outlined to MEPs during a special plenary session are plans to make the bloc's climate commitments legally-binding and to increase emissions reduction targets.

The proposals have already had some pushback from several European capitals and NGOs have criticised the package as not going far enough.

"Europe will lead by example," Von der Leyen said, adding that the Green Deal will reconcile "our economy with our planet" and that it "will set clear rules so that investors and innovators can plan their long-term investment".

'Carbon neutral by 2050'

The package of measures known as the European Green Deal included a proposal for a European "Climate Law" that will enshrine the objective for the bloc to be carbon neutral in 2050. It will be brought forward in March.

The EU's executive arm also wants to increase the bloc's emissions reduction targets from the current 40% to "at least 50%" by 2030 and "towards 55%" compared with 1990 levels with the proposal tabled for mid-2020, the Commission chief announced.

Other measures include the creation of a carbon border adjustment mechanism for selected sectors to ensure "the price of imports reflect more accurately their carbon content"; boosting energy efficiency by increasing renewable sources and rapidly phasing out coal and decarbonising gas; decreasing or ending tax exemptions for aviation and maritime fuels; and lastly the creation of a €100 billion fund to boost green investment.

The fund will combine public and private money which will be dished out over the seven years and which will act as "the springboard for those sectors and those regions that have to catch up," Von der Leyen said.

'Proposals are too weak'

Environment NGOs have welcomed the announcement as going in the right direction but criticised it as not going far enough.

Greenpeace said in a statement that although the "volume of policies is impressive and the promises are more significant than those of previous Commissions, the policies themselves are either too weak or still need to be pieced together".

The NGO deemed the 50-55% emission cut by 2030 insufficient and urged "Commission President von der Leyen and her team to put forward legislation that is up to the task".

Transport and Environment, a Brussels-based research group, said that "the plan to end aviation’s tax holiday, make sure shipping pays for its emissions and mandate the deployment of clean fuels and technology is welcome."

But it added that the Green Deal "still falls short of what’s needed to fully decarbonise transport by 2050 and in some instances risks repeating past mistakes."

Some member states are also likely to fight some of von der Leyen's plans. Leading the charge is Poland which in September opened a coal mine, a first in 25 years in the country with the government also keen to introduce legislation that will allow it to open new coal mines without the approval of local authorities.

Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic — which blocked a previous EU attempt to introduce legal obligations to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century compared to 1990 levels — have already raised objections to the proposals.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis wrote on Twitter that his country "also wants to achieve carbon neutrality, but we won't make it without nuclear".

"Moreover, the cost of carbon neutrality will be astronomical," he added, calling on " the EU to take this into account in the next budget period."

A Hungarian government spokesman, Zoltan Kovacs, said on Wednesday: "Beyond the existing 2030 commitments we can only make new ones based on serious, clear and responsible calculations. This is the only way to make responsible decisions."

Removing subsidies for fossil fuels

The European Commission estimates that to achieve the current 2030 climate and energy targets, an additional €260 billion of additional annual investment will be needed.

It also plans to earmark a quarter of the EU budget for climate mainstreaming across all EU programmes and stressed national government should reform their tax systems and that rules towards state aid may also have to be amended.

"At the national level, the European Green Deal will create the context for broad-based tax reforms, removing subsidies for fossil fuels, shifting the tax burden from labour to pollution, and taking into account social considerations," the Commission wrote.

"Evaluations are underway of the relevant state aid guidelines including the environmental and energy state aid guidelines," it added.

The Commission also plans to use the Green Deal in its trade relations with Von der Leyen explaining that "the goals must be the same for everyone and positive change should be rewarded and not hindered".

The Commission also wrote that it wants to support its immediate neighbours, especially the Western Balkans, in their own transition and that "more generally, the EU will use its diplomatic and financial tools to ensure that green alliances are part of its relations with Africa and other partner countries and regions, particularly in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific."

Rewatch Commission President Ursula von der Leyen lay out her proposals for the European Green Deal.