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A train crossing over a road mostly under water during flooding in Germany, 2021 Alamy
climate action

EU Commission proposes 90% cut to emissions by 2040

As the threat of climate crisis grows around the world, the EU has already committed to cutting emissions by 55% by 2030.


THE EU COMMISSION has announced a proposal a new climate target to try to keep the bloc on track to reach net-zero emissions by the middle of the century.

However, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also recommended that the bloc shelve a plan to cut pesticide use in agriculture as a concession to European farmers after weeks of protests.

The original proposal, put forward by her European Commission as part of the European Union’s green transition, “has become a symbol of polarisation,” she told the European Parliament in Strasbourg. 

As the threat of climate crisis grows around the world, the EU has already committed to cutting emissions by 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 and to be carbon neutral by 2050.

Today, the Commission has proposed a new milestone on that pathway by setting a target of cutting emissions by 90% by 2040.

2023 was Europe’s second-warmest year on record, according to the Copernicus Climate Change Service. Temperatures were above average for 11 months of the year. 

Extreme weather events around the world had significant impacts on people, ecosystems, nature and infrastructure, with “exceptional” instances of flooding, wildfires, drought and extreme heat.

Climate change is largely driven by human activities that burn fossil fuels, releasing greenhouse gas emissions that trap heat inside the atmosphere.

The European Scientific Advisory Board on Climate Change has recommended a target of reducing emissions between 90% and 95% by 2040, so a decision to set the goal at 90% would put it at the lower end of the recommended range. 

“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 EU Commission said in a press statement this afternoon.

“It will also boost Europe’s resilience against future crises, and notably strengthen the EU’s energy independence from fossil fuel imports, which accounted for over 4% of GDP in 2022 as we faced the consequences of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine,” it said.

An impact assessment found that “even by conservative estimates, higher global warming as a result of inaction could lower the EU’s GDP by about 7% by the end of the century”.

EU climate commissioner Wopke Hoekstra said last month that the EU needs to keep standing “on two legs”, fighting for climate action while “making sure our businesses stay competitive [and] there is a just transition.”

A joint letter from 11 countries including France, Germany and Spain has called on the Commission to set an “ambitious EU climate target” for 2040 and to ensure a “fair and just transition,” that should “leave no one behind, especially the most vulnerable citizens”. 

The EU Commission was obligated to submit new climate projections for the years after 2030 within six months of the COP28 climate conference that took place in Dubai in December, but it will be a new set of Commissioners tasked with proposing legislation on the matter after elections this summer. It would then be put to the EU Parliament and Council.

Cutting emissions will require significant input from all sectors.

On top of that, it’s expected that plans to meet the 2040 target will incorporate carbon capture and storage — a controversial technology that can draw down some carbon dioxide after it is emitted, but which is expensive, has not been tested at scale, and which still leaves damage caused to the planet compared to if the emissions were not released in the first place.

Pesticides plan scrapped

Efforts to combat the climate crisis face challenges from far-right and nationalist parties, who have been found to spread disinformation about climate change and climate action in order to draw uncertain voters toward their side.

Brussels faced protests that turned aggressive by farmers last week over environmental requirements for farmers in new climate and agriculture policies, as well as issues like pay and fuel prices.

Protesters burned hay bales, tyres and wooden pallets and threw bottles, rocks and eggs near EU Parliament buildings, blocking streets and putting the city’s traffic into gridlock.

The proposed plan to cut the overall use of pesticides and other hazardous substances by 50% by 2030 was also one that farmers took issue with. 

Von der Leyen, noting that the plan to halve chemical pesticide use in the EU by the end of the decade had also stalled in discussions in the parliament and in the European Council representing EU member countries, said today that she would ask her commission “to withdraw this proposal”.

Protests were continuing today, including in the Netherlands – and with demonstrations called for outside the parliament in Strasbourg.

“Many of them feel pushed into a corner,” von der Leyen acknowledged, adding: “Our farmers deserve to be listened to.”

At the same time, though, she emphasised that European agriculture “needs to move to a more sustainable model of production” that was more environmentally friendly and less harmful to soil quality.

“Perhaps we have not made that case convincingly,” she said.

Building ‘trust’

To get there, von der Leyen said “trust” had to be built between farmers and policymakers, and she pointed to consultative dialogue Brussels has started with a broad range of representatives in the agri-food sector.

Von der Leyen said that, while she wanted to withdraw the proposed law on pesticides, “the topic stays” even if “a different approach is needed”.

She suggested that the commission could come up with a revised legislative proposal at a later date – an initiative that would likely fall to the next commission resulting from EU elections taking place in June.

Von der Leyen has not yet said whether she intends to seek a new mandate at the head of that commission.

Some European leaders welcomed the shelving of the pesticide legislation.

“Long live the farmers, whose tractors are forcing Europe to take back the madness imposed by the multinationals and the left,” said Italy’s far-right Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini.

He spoke as groups of Italian farmers rallied at the edges of Rome ahead of a planned move into the Italian capital as early as Thursday.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo hailed von der Leyen’s announcement, saying it was “crucial we keep our farmers on board to a more sustainable future of farming”.

The proposed pesticide concession follows another the Commission unveiled last week, to give farmers wider exemptions on rules that required them to keep parcels of land fallow.

France has also moved to promise more cash to its farmers, ease rules imposed on them and protect them from what they see as unfair competition.

The pledges have been enough for two of the country’s main farmer unions to suspend protests.

But farmers in other EU countries including Italy, Spain and Greece say they will continue to mobilise.

Additional reporting by AFP 

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