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EU Policy. Lack of commitment threatens bloc’s climate-neutrality target

Wind turbines behind a solar farm in Rapshagen, 2021. The EU aims to cover at least 42.5% of its energy needs from renewable sources by the end of the decade.
Wind turbines behind a solar farm in Rapshagen, 2021. The EU aims to cover at least 42.5% of its energy needs from renewable sources by the end of the decade. Copyright AP Photo/Michael Sohn, File
Copyright AP Photo/Michael Sohn, File
By Marta PachecoRobert Hodgson
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With the European Commission expected to announce next month a radical new 2040 target for greenhouse gas emissions reduction, there are worrying signs that governments are struggling to meet existing commitments.

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As the European Commission prepares a proposal for a 2040 climate target that could see member states pledge to cut net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to just 10% of 1990 levels, there are signs that governments are struggling to achieve more modest existing targets set for the end of this decade.

The groundbreaking European Climate Law commits the EU to a 55% cut by 2030 and full carbon neutrality by 2050, and requires the Commission to propose an intermediate target for 2040 in the coming months. The European Scientific Advisory Board on Climate Change, a body created by the same legislation, concluded last summer that achieving net-zero will be impossible unless a reduction of 90-95% is achieved by 2040.

Since then, the EU’s new climate action commissioner, Wopke Hoekstra, has committed to “defend” fixing a 90% target for 2040, going as far as promising MEPs during his confirmation hearing in October that the EU executive would “explore” the radical political option of suggesting “lifestyle changes including dietary changes” as a means of achieving it.

Putting a 90% target in perspective: annual net greenhouse gas output currently stands at around 32% below 1990 levels. Reaching the goal to which Hoekstra has committed would mean cutting the annual net emissions across the EU by a factor of almost seven between now and 2040.

The climate advisory board’s president Ottmar Edenhofer presented his panel’s main findings to environment ministers over lunch at an EU Council summit in Brussels on 18 December. But Spanish minister Teresa Ribera, who chaired the talks, gave little away when quizzed by reporters other than to say the exchange of views had been “interesting and constructive”.

The Commission needs to produce a legislative proposal to set the EU-wide climate target for 2040 within six months of the Paris Agreement’s first UN global stocktake, which was completed at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai. Governments are already showing signs of unease.

“Some member states are calling for high ambition, while others raised the importance of just transition, realistic targets and maintaining public support,” an EU diplomat told Euronews.

The EU executive is expected to launch the process to establish a 2040 climate target on 6 February, with the publication of a communication to EU legislators – undoubtedly upping the pressure on member states to fulfil the Paris Agreement ambition of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, which was restated during the COP28 gathering. It remains unclear if government leaders will discuss the issue at a European Council summit in March, however.

Member states are already struggling to meet the 2030 targets for energy savings, renewable energy use, and overall emissions reduction at the core of the EU’s contribution to the global effort. During the same environment ministers’ gathering in December, the Commission published a damning assessment of national climate and energy plans (NECPs) submitted to date.

With all the planned measures combined, the bloc looked set to fall short of all three targets for the end of this decade, which require roughly doubling the share of renewables such as wind and solar in the EU’s energy mix to 42.5% while cutting overall energy use by 11.7% on the way to slashing net emissions by 55% compared to 1990.

Moreover, despite an end-of-June deadline, only 21 member states had submitted draft plans by mid-November, a scenario that has significantly compromised the process of assessing their combined impact, according to the Commission. The executive’s appraisal points to shortcomings on several fronts, including EU countries’ performance on reducing national annual emissions.

Current measures would lead to a reduction of 51%, four points short of the 2030 target, the Commission found. As for renewable energy in the mix, current drafts show that EU countries are on track to reach a share of around 39% by 2030. For energy efficiency the picture is much worse: the plans submitted by mid-November imply a 5.8% reduction in energy demand, just half of the EU target.

“Our commitment will only materialize if member states ensure reliable planning and implementation of the policies needed,” energy commissioner Kadri Simson told energy ministers at another EU Council summit on 19 December.

While a few more draft NECPs came in after the Commission made its assessment, the EU executive announced on 21 December it was initiating infringement proceedings against Austria, Bulgaria and Poland for missing the legal deadline.

A separate report published by the European Environment Agency on 18 December also raised doubts about governments’ commitment and countries’ capacities to meet a broader range of EU environment policy targets. The target for reducing energy consumption was also flagged by the EU watchdog, alongside others on the rate of circular materials use and the proportion of farmland given over to organic production, as “very unlikely to be achieved”.

While the EU executive sought to reassure that member states were nonetheless “on the right track”, it emphasised the need for governments to increase their efforts. Simson acknowledged to energy ministers that the plans submitted to date were still just drafts, submitted before the revised Energy Efficiency Directive came into force in September 2023. “I think we’ll see significant higher levels of ambition,” she said.

Governments have until 30 June this year to send in their final NECPs, after taking into account the Commission's recommendations.

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