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'This can't just be politics as usual': What are the EU's main climate goals?

Let’s explore the Green Deal and the EU’s other plans and policies around climate.

“IT’S WARMING. IT’S us. We’re sure. It’s bad. But we can fix it.”

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen was clear in her state of the union address last month that climate is a key focus for Europe and the world. 

“We will put a price on pollution. We will clean the energy we use. We will have smarter cars and cleaner airplanes,” von der Leyen said in her speech. 

This is one of the many ambitious messages expressed by EU leaders in relation to climate action – but how exactly does it aim to achieve its targets across the bloc?

The European Green Deal is the blueprint for how the EU plans to drastically reduce emissions across all 27 countries, to try to prevent the worst impacts of climate change from becoming a reality. 

Let’s take a closer look at this plan, and the other climate policies either already in place or being discussed in the EU, including the CAP, Fit for 55 and Farm to Fork. 

Green Deal

There are two main goals at the heart of the EU’s climate policies – reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 55% by 2030 and reaching net zero emissions by 2050

The Green Deal is the roadmap that fleshes out how the EU plans on becoming a climate neutral bloc over the next few decades. 

It was first put forward by the commission in December 2019 and the 55% by 2030 goal was communicated to the UN last year as the EU’s contribution to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. 

This was an agreement reached at the UN’s COP21 summit in Paris in 2015 to aim to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. 

The EU aims to reach climate neutrality through a significant reduction in emissions and compensating for any emissions that aren’t cleaned up or cut down enough.

Associate Professor at DCU’s school of law and government, Dr Diarmuid Torney, said the Green Deal is “quite radically different to any previous set of policy proposals around climate change from the European Union”. 

“Climate change is breaking out of that kind of environment silo, and it’s now becoming an all-of-government, or in the case of the EU, all-of-EU concern because it requires a transformation in all sectors of the economy,” he told The Journal

It’s not just climate and energy, it’s agricultural land use, Farm to Fork, transport, investment, trade, finance -  everything.

Along with using and producing less under the policy, the EU said emissions will be reduced through the use of more renewable energy, more energy efficient ways to heat and light buildings and the use of more sustainable forms of transport like buses and trains over cars and planes.

At the moment, more carbon emissions are being produced than can be absorbed by carbon sinks like trees and oceans, which contributes to widespread global warming. So in a climate neutral country, continent or planet, the emissions being produced would balance the amount being absorbed.

The Green Deal is also focused on investment in environmentally friendly technologies and ensuring a ‘just transition’ for regions and workers impacted by the move to lower emissions. 

Eamon Ryan said in a written answer in the Dáil earlier this year that the government has “welcomed the European Green Deal”. 

However, it has also received criticism – with some environmentalists arguing that the measures don’t go far enough.

Greenpeace EU spokesperson Franziska Achterberg said in 2019 that the climate targets for 2030 and 2050 are “too little too late” and that the EU could do more to tackle emissions.

European Climate Law and Fit for 55

As a result of the aims in the Green Deal, the EU brought in the European Climate Law in July of this year. MEPs approved the law by 442 votes to 203 with 51 abstentions. 

DCU’s Diarmuid Torney said the law was a “significant milestone” in the EU. It put the goals around emission reductions for 2030 and 2050 into a binding legal commitment for EU member States. 

Ireland’s Climate Act was signed into law at the end of July. Environment Minister Eamon Ryan said at the time that it “sends a clear signal to every sector that it must reshape its activities to reduce emissions”. 

The Act commits Ireland to becoming carbon neutral by 2050 and contains provisions for legally binding emissions targets through the introduction of five-year ‘carbon budgets’.

Ireland’s first carbon budget is set to be announced soon. 

There’s some potential legislative change on the way in the form of the ‘Fit for 55′ package, which is aimed to revamp the EU’s climate, energy and transport-related laws.

Torney described this package as a “re-engineering of all of the existing climate legislation” to bring them in line with goals such as the 55% emissions reduction by 2030 (which is where the package gets its name).  

This would amend certain climate and energy legislation to make the 2030 and 2050 goals for carbon emissions possible. 

This is a plan still in progress that is currently being discussed at a European level. Eamon Ryan said last month that Fit for 55 is “probably the most broad and connected legislative package the European Union has ever presented”. 

“It is a dramatic signal of intent towards action,” Minister Ryan said in the Dáil.

It contains policy proposals to revise the EU 2030 climate and energy framework including legislation on effort sharing, land use, forestry, renewable energy and emission standards for new cars and vans. 

The commission also wants to change the existing emissions trading system (ETS). This system puts a cap on the amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted by certain sectors.

Greenhouse gas is the wider term used for all harmful substances being emitted into the atmosphere. 

Fit for 55 includes a number of other proposals including: 

  • Revising the effort sharing regulation on member states reduction targets in sectors outside the EU ETS
  • Revising regulation on inclusion of GHG emissions and removal from land use, land use changes and forestry 
  • Revising the renewable energy directive 
  • Introducing a social climate fund

The social climate fund is aimed to address the social impacts from the proposed new ETS by supporting measures that reduce emissions in transport and buildings and by providing funds for vulnerable, impacted households.

The new ETS would put a yearly decrease limit on emissions from road transport and buildings within which all allowances will be auctioned. 

The overall Fit for 55 package was presented to EU environment and climate change ministers in July 2021.

Eamon Ryan was in attendance at this meeting. The minister said on Twitter that the package needs to be agreed “quickly so Europe can lead on climate action and a just transition”. 

European Commission vice president Frans Timmermans said last month that it is time for Europe and the world to “take responsibility for next generations” in tackling the climate crisis. 

However, some politicians have been critical of the package – either arguing that the EU needs to take a softer approach or saying the plan still lacks the ambition needed to tackle the crisis. 

Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)

It’s impossible to discuss the EU’s climate goals without talking about the CAP, the EU’s agriculture policy which has been around in one form or another since 1962. The CAP aims to help farmers with their work while also dealing with climate change.

The agricultural sector produces around one-third of Ireland’s emissions. 

There was a provisional agreement reached on an updated CAP in June this year to be brought in from 2023. 

However, the policy has also fallen under criticism for playing a major role in the decline of biodiversity and a rise in agricultural emissions due to its emphasis on production. 

The European Commission said that farmers should work in a sustainable and environmentally  friendly manner “while being cost-effective”. 

Farm to Fork 

This is another aspect of the Green Deal which is intended to “make food systems fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly”, according to the European Commission. 

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The strategy is aimed to speed up the EU moving to more sustainable food systems focused on improved environmental impacts, reversing the loss of biodiversity and ensuring food security for people in the bloc. 

The legislative proposals around this plan are still being worked out in Europe.

The Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue has outlined Ireland’s support for the Farm to Fork Strategy, saying last March that the development of the proposals must be “informed by comprehensive impact assessments”.

Will we reach net zero?

A key question and unknown behind all of the climate policies – whether in Europe or globally – is whether they will be enough to drastically reduce emissions across the board.

Although the EU’s emissions are reducing, they are still increasing on a global level. 

The impacts of the rising global temperature is already being felt, and in Europe the impacts over time will mean an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events like flooding and heatwaves.

This was already seen over the summer with countries like Greece experiencing wildfires and floods in Belgium and Germany. 

Diarmuid Torney from DCU said the EU goals for 2050 and 2030 could be “arguably not fast enough” for a continent that has contributed heavily to emissions in the past. 

“I think it’s possible to say that the 2030 and 2050 goals are both not enough, but also they are going to be incredibly challenging to meet,” Torney said. 

There’s a shrinking remaining amount of space in the atmosphere, a remaining global carbon budget, that can be emitted if we want to stay below any given temperature threshold – whether it’s 1.5 or two degrees in the Paris Agreement or any other temperature goal.

“So on an equity basis, a fair distribution of that remaining space in the atmosphere would allocate the lion’s share of it to the developing world that haven’t contributed much to the problem already,” he said, highlighting this as one argument towards the EU striving for climate neutrality even sooner than 2050. 

However, he said “there’s a point at which if you keep bringing the net zero date forward, it becomes not only really challenging, but completely infeasible”.

“But on the other hand, there’s a sense of urgency around all of this. I think there’s a sense that this can’t just be politics as usual.

If it was 10 or 20 years ago, we could probably put off decisions but I think just the kind of political dynamics of the climate issue and the school children out on the streets and Greta Thunberg and so forth, I think there is an acceptance of the sense of urgency.

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here. 

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