The European Union’s push to set a date for eliminating greenhouse-gas emissions is gathering pace, making the bloc’s climate chief confident that a deal can be reached by the end of this year.
The campaign moved forward on Thursday when Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas said he’s joining 24 other EU leaders in supporting a 2050 target for reaching zero net emissions, leaving a four-nations group that opposed stepping up green efforts. EU Climate and Energy Commissioner Miguel Arias Canete welcomed the decision on Friday during a meeting of the bloc’s environment ministers in Luxembourg.
“I’m confident that the European Council will be able to reach an agreement on an ambitious long-term vision for climate neutrality by 2050 before the end of the year,” Canete told the meeting tasked with laying the groundwork for a summit of EU leaders later this month. “It will facilitate any subsequent discussions on how to reframe this into the climate law that the President-elect Ursula von der Leyen has announced for her first 100 days.”
The move suggests momentum is building behind von der Leyen’s ambition to put the environment at the heart of the EU agenda when she assumes her job next month. As recently as June, Estonia teamed up with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to prevent EU leaders moving toward the target.
“Climate neutrality by 2050 is the new normal,” Karsten Sach, director general at the German Environment Ministry, said in an interview before the environmental meeting. “Clearly the debate is gathering pace.”
The fight against climate change is climbing up Europe’s political agenda as voters grow increasingly concerned about the rising temperatures and extreme weather events.
Setting the EU on a track toward meeting the 2050 target would mean a transformation of the economy affecting everything from transportation and agriculture to energy production and the design of cities.
“Climate neutrality is now very high on the political level, all the summits of EU heads of state are now discussing it,” said Norbert Kurilla, state secretary at the Slovak Environment Ministry. “There’s a great momentum. Europe was always a leader on climate action and I firmly believe that it will continue to do so.”
The cost of the shift though is dizzying.
The European Commission estimates that the energy system and infrastructure will need an extra at 175 billion euros ($190 billion) to 290 billion euros a year in investment from 2030. Opponents of swift action are using the cost argument to slow down the talks and win more financial aid.
“For us all this is a major challenge, this is an undisputable priority for the EU, including Poland,” undersecretary of state for environment Slawomir Mazurek told the ministerial meeting on Friday. “We are pleased to note that we all want to attain climate neutrality, yet we need to carry it out in a balanced, sensible and fair manner for all.”
EU diplomats insist that the former communist countries will most likely fall into line when von der Leyen’s target goes back to the European leaders’ summit in December with a package to help coal-dependent and poorer economies. The commission, the EU’s regulatory arm, needs a political nod from all the heads of state before proposing detailed laws in the coming years on how to meet the new climate objectives.
“We will definitely come to an agreement,” said Eva Svedling, Swedish
State Secretary for Climate. “We need everyone on board.”
Adopting the 2050 target would bring Europe into line with the objectives set out in the Paris Agreement, which called on nations to work toward capping global temperature increases since pre-industrial times to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and acknowledges the need to strive for 1.5 degrees. That would still be the quickest shift in the climate since the end of the last ice age more than 10,000 years ago. Without deeper cuts in greenhouse gases, the world is on track for at least double the targeted amount of warming.
“It’s amazing how quickly the European climate neutrality campaign is accelerating,” said Ursula Woodburn, head of EU relations at the Corporate Leaders Group Europe, an organization convened by the University of Cambridge that brings together businesses and policy makers. “The political context has shifted and a number of businesses have managed to show the way to decarbonization. It cannot be ignored anymore.”