‘Rather exhausted’ EU leaders sign off on higher 2030 climate goals

A final deal still needs to be hammered out with the European Parliament, which wants a 60 percent cut.

‘Rather exhausted’ EU leaders sign off on higher 2030 climate goals

Europe will surge ahead with its effort to stamp out greenhouse gas emissions and climate change in this decade, after a hard-fought deal among EU leaders on Friday. 

During a long night of negotiations, Poland — powered by coal and with a big traditional industrial base — held out for concessions and cash. But eventually, every EU member agreed to raise the bloc’s emissions reduction goal for 2030 to net 55 percent from the current target of 40 percent. 

After a summit marked by spats over the budget — where Poland alongside Hungary threatened a veto over tying EU cash to rule of law — there was palpable relief that the meeting ended with both budget and climate agreements.

The 2030 deal was a “great way to celebrate” the first anniversary of the European Green Deal and its vision to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted just after the deal was struck on Friday morning.

The 2030 commitment comes a day before a U.N. climate summit, where the EU will announce the new goal, establishing the bloc’s claim to lead the world in the fight to stop the planet warming. It also avoids the embarrassment of turning up empty-handed. 

That “is, in my view, a very important result,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel after the meeting. “It was worth losing a night’s sleep to achieve this. I don’t want to imagine what would have happened if we hadn’t been able to achieve such a result.”

“We are all rather exhausted,” von der Leyen added.

Agreeing to boost emissions cuts to 55 percent was mostly unthinkable just a year ago. 

The new target will require a comprehensive remaking of Europe’s economy across every sector and the work must begin now. Brussels will launch an avalanche of legislative proposals by next June to update everything from national emissions reduction and renewables targets to CO2 standards for cars, energy taxation and forestry. Negotiations on the Climate Law — presented in March to make the bloc’s climate neutrality goal by 2050 legally binding — will now swing into high gear.

All aboard

A year ago, EU leaders allowed Poland to stand aside as all other EU countries committed to reach net zero emissions by 2050. This time Poland is fully signed up, but not without putting up a fight. 

Poland had allies, mainly poorer and coal-reliant countries in Central and Eastern Europe. They worried that higher cuts would saddle them with unbearable costs, especially compared to their greener and wealthier peers in the bloc’s west and north.

In the run-up to the summit, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, as well as other regional allies, had demanded assurances that the EU would stump up the cash and tweak regulation in their favor. Warsaw — which has said it wants to modernize its economy but relies on coal for about three-quarters of its electricity needs — fought until the very end, officials said. One official complained the Poles used the looming U.N. summit to squeeze extra concessions.

“It was very important for us to negotiate a climate agreement that was good for Poland. We’re going to have appropriate legislation which will give us the means for an energy transformation,” Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Friday morning.

A higher climate target “means more efforts need to be done, especially for poorer member states,” a Central European official said late on Thursday, quipping that absent additional support, it’s like saying: “we want you to be doing more … but at your own expense.” 

But the sense of what is feasible is shifting fast. 

The price of clean energy is plummeting and the EU’s next €1.8 trillion budget and pandemic recovery program has presented an opportunity to ease the financial concerns of the bloc’s poorer members.

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis tweeted Friday morning that the new 2030 goal “will modernize the European Union’s economies and improve the lives of European citizens.” 

He added that “Romania has ensured that its interests are covered, including … the use of gas in the transition process.” The final deal makes it possible for countries to use nuclear power and natural gas to replace dirtier fossil fuels, by allowing “transitional technologies such as gas.” That concession will shape political battles over how much the EU invests in natural gas in the coming years.

The 2030 goal will be delivered by the bloc collectively — that means no easing of the years-long battle over how fast each country must cut down its pollution. 

That’s also why poorer members wanted to ensure that targets to cut emissions in sectors such as transport, agriculture and buildings, which are not covered by the EU’s Emissions Trading System, be allocated based on countries’ relative wealth. Poland, in particular, wanted reforms to the ETS to leave it with more money to fund energy system upgrades under the Modernization Fund — something the final deal tackles more clearly.

In a compromise, the Council conclusions maintain the central role of leaders to guide climate policy, saying they will “return to the matter and adopt additional guidance in time before the Commission puts forward its proposals” next summer, including on the question of how to (fairly) apportion emissions cuts across the bloc.

Good but not good enough

While EU leaders celebrated their agreement, the fight over 2030 isn’t over. The European Parliament wants a 60 percent cut and has been bridling at the idea that it would simply roll over and accept a lower target.

Don’t be “fooled,” said Jytte Guteland, the Swedish Socialist MEP charged with negotiating the Parliament’s position. She called the new target not “sufficient.” 

Green groups agree, noting that for the first time the emissions calculation would count CO2 removals from forests and other land uses, which weakens the actual cuts by between 2 percent and 4 percent.

“What planet are EU leaders on? They celebrate agreeing an #EU2030 climate target that still sets us on course for over 2°C of global heating,” tweeted Greenpeace, calling for a 65 percent emissions cut by 2030.

Maïa de La Baume contributed reporting.

This article has been updated to give more detail of the talks.