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Brussels recommends new EU climate target: a 90% cut of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2040

The European Commission recommended a 90% cut in emissions as the bloc's 2040 climate target.
The European Commission recommended a 90% cut in emissions as the bloc's 2040 climate target. Copyright Patrick Pleul/(c) Copyright 2023, dpa (www.dpa.de). Alle Rechte vorbehalten
Copyright Patrick Pleul/(c) Copyright 2023, dpa (www.dpa.de). Alle Rechte vorbehalten
By Jorge Liboreiro
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The European Union must slash greenhouse gas emissions by 90% by 2040, Brussels said on Tuesday in a recommendation aimed at ensuring climate neutrality becomes a reality by mid-century.

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The 90% reduction, as compared to 1990s levels, would entail a massive deployment of renewable systems, the irreversible abolition of coal, and the near-total disappearance of gas from the bloc's energy system, as well as profound changes in transport, food, buildings, factories and waste management.

The target is necessary to keep the EU aligned with the 2015 Paris Agreement, which committed nations to keep the Earth's long-term average temperature well below 2°C and, preferably, below 1.5°C, a goal that each year appears to slip further away.

The sense of urgency dramatically ratcheted up when 2023 was declared the warmest year since records began in 1850, laying bare the ticking bomb set by the climate crisis.

For the time being, though, the 2040 ambition is a non-binding recommendation from the European Commission to kick-start the political debate. A formal proposal would be put forward only after the elections to the European Parliament, a timing carefully chosen to prevent far-right parties from exploiting the issue.

"Setting a 2040 climate target will help European industry, investors, citizens and governments to make decisions in this decade that will keep the EU on track to meet its climate neutrality objective in 2050," the Commission said in a press release.

"It will send important signals on how to invest and plan effectively for the longer term, minimising the risks of stranded assets."

The legislative process ahead is guaranteed to be fractious and polarising as the Green Deal is feeling a growing backlash from conservatives, farmers and industry, all of whom complain about the excessive burden placed by environmental regulation.

The rebellion began brewing when Brussels launched Fit for 55, a far-reaching bundle of laws designed to reduce the EU's greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% before the end of this decade. The package introduced unprecedented measures like a carbon border tax and a gradual ban on fossil fuel-powered vehicles.

But it was the Nature Restoration Law, which technically speaking was not part of Fit For 55, that unleashed the backlash and exposed a deepening divide between right-wing and left-wing politicians. Since then, the Green Deal has become the subject of open, scathing criticism, as shown in the farmer protests that recently took over several member states, such as France, Germany, Belgium, Poland and Italy.

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, has reacted by putting farmers at the centre of her speeches and praising their resilience as they battle the cost-of-living crisis. On Tuesday, just hours before the 2040 climate target was revealed, von der Leyen announced the withdrawal of a contentious pesticide law that had been vehemently opposed by the agricultural sector.

The fury on the streets stands in sharp contrast with the ominous warnings issued by climate scientists, who repeatedly urge governments, particularly major economies like the EU, the US, China and India, to step up their climate policies and slash greenhouse gas emissions at a faster, more resolute pace.

Last September, the United Nations said the window of opportunity to comply with the Paris Agreement was "rapidly closing" and called for "decisive action" to reverse the trend. Months later, nations gathered at COP28 struck a historic deal to transition away from fossil fuels "in a just, orderly and equitable manner" to "achieve net zero by 2050."

Under the so-called Global Stocktake initiated in Dubai, the Commission is compelled to propose a binding 2040 target within six months of the conference. 

Unlike the 2030 target, the 2040 figure recommended on Tuesday is not preceded by "at least," meaning the 90% cut is understood as a maximum ceiling rather than a minimum floor. The European Scientific Advisory Board on Climate Change previously pushed for a stringent 2040 target, somewhere between 90% and 95% of all emissions.

The shadow of the farmer protests weighs heavily over the spirit of the Commission's announcement, which is peppered with allusions to "fairness," "solidarity," "competitiveness" and the importance of sustaining a continued dialogue with industry.

The executive, however, insists the commitments made under the 2030 target, including the Fit For 55 agenda, must be implemented in full to achieve the 90% cut by 2040.

"With the right policies and support, the agriculture sector can also play a role in the transition, while ensuring sufficient food production in Europe, securing fair incomes and providing other vital services such as enhancing the capacity of soils and forests to store more carbon," the press release says.

"A holistic dialogue with the broader food industry, also beyond the farm gate, is crucial to success in this area and to the development of sustainable practices and business models."

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Reacting to the news, environmental organizations were highly critical of the 90% figure because the target, as envisioned by the Commission, would be "net" and leave the door open for carbon removal, the still-unproved technologies that fossil fuel producers favour because it would allow them to continue parts of their polluting operations.

"This is about as meaningful as a target to prevent lung cancer without any plan to end smoking," said Silvia Pastorelli, a climate campaigner with Greenpeace. "It is blatantly clear that fossil fuels must be brought to a swift end if we want to avoid the worst effects of climate breakdown."

This piece has been updated with more information about the announcement.

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