Q&A | EU's path to climate neutrality

By Susanna Gevorgyan

Q&A | EU's path to climate neutrality


Climate change has been on the agenda of every country, regardless of the level of development or size, for years. Over the past few decades, the world has seen a number of important agreements reached that aim to cut greenhouse gas emissions which is necessary in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C. The EU, the world’s third-biggest emitter of gas, has gone even further by making a reduction in gas emissions legally binding and has pledged to secure climate neutrality by 2050.

What is climate neutrality?

According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, “climate neutrality refers to the idea of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by balancing those emissions so they are equal (or less than) the emissions that are removed through the planet’s natural absorption; in basic terms it means we reduce our emissions through climate action”. To put this another way, climate neutrality is about emitting less gas and taking measures so that more is absorbed. With the ongoing climate changes already causing massive damage, Charles Michel, President of the European Council, said:

“Climate neutrality is no longer a question of choice, it is beyond doubt a necessity.”

What about the amount of EU’s gas emissions?

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions began to increase back in the 19th century when the industrial revolution gained pace. In 2019, emissions amounted to 52.4 gigatonnes worldwide, of which the EU was responsible for 4,067 megatonnes representing a decrease of 3.8% compared to 2018. Furthermore, pandemic-related restrictions resulted in a further 13% reduction in GHG in 2020 compared to 2019. This has made it possible to secure a decrease of about 30% from the 1990 level when the EU’s gas emissions reached 5,669 megatonnes.

Who are the biggest emitters?

Despite the decrease in gas emissions, the EU still ranks third in terms of the biggest GHG emitters being preceded by China and the U.S.

Within the EU, the biggest GHG emitter is Germany which produced nearly 605 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2020. The next largest are Italy and Poland and altogether these three countries accounted for about 46% of the EU’s total GHG emissions in 2020.

Is GHG reduction legally binding in the EU?

In June 2021, the European Parliament approved the Climate Law with an overwhelming majority of votes. Described as “the law of laws”, the bill provides for the reduction of gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. It provides for capping GHG emissions to 225 megatons by 2030 and becoming a negative carbon economy by 2050, meaning the EU’s emissions will be lower than the amount of carbon removed.

Climate Law rapporteur, Jytte Guteland, said: “Today is a historic day. With this law, the EU maintains its leadership as the region with the most ambitious targets for the climate. Whether we like it or not, the climate crisis will be a major issue for the next generations. Our children will judge us upon what kind of future we left them.”

What of the EU’s action plan?

On 14 July, the EU proposed a set of measures, known as the European Green Deal, to be taken in order to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030. These mainly target sectors such as energy, industry, transport, and the heating of buildings and also encourage businesses and consumers to use greener solutions rather than those that cause pollution. To give just one example, under the roadmap, internal combustion vehicles will be phased out by 2035. Pollution from transportation in the EU, which accounts for 22% of its GHG emissions, is projected to be slashed by 55% in 2030 and 100% in 2035 meaning petrol and diesel engine cars are expected to be taken off the roads. Other sectors will be affected under the plan as well, for example, aviation, which currently benefits from a free emissions allowance, is expected to pay in full for carbon emissions in the same way other industries do.

Will the climate budget be impacted?

Implementing the climate-related roadmap will definitely require increased financing. According to estimates, the annual investment in the EU’s energy system will be about 350 billion euro higher in 2021-2030 than it was in 2011-2020. Under the long-term EU budget for 2021-2027, which provides for a total amount of 1.8 trillion euro, about 30% of this will go towards climate which is the highest amount ever allocated to this sector.

How will progress be measured?

While the EU establishes new goals towards net-zero emissions, a report published by the Ecologic Institute and L’Institut du Développement Durable et des Relations Internationales (IDDRI) has argued that climate-neutral solutions call for cohesive approaches across traditional sectors. The report proposes a group of “net-zero elements” that together form part of the climate-neutral vision, as presented in the figure below. It classifies fundamental “enablers” for the changes that are essential for each element. These are presented together in a detailed assessment matrix intended to be used both for monitoring and planning purposes.

The approach proposed by the report can be used as a tool by lawmakers as it aims to offer information about the fundamental changes required across the sectors so that policy-making can be adjusted and improved in an effort to meet the defined goals.

Figure 1. Timeline of European policy processes using indicators according to the report 

Why does it matter?

According to the World Meteorological Organization, the global average temperature in 2020 was recorded at around 1.2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level. Scientists have warned that exceeding the 1.5-degree Celsius level of increase must be avoided to avert the worst impacts of climate change. To depict a more precise picture, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that should temperatures increase by 2 degrees from pre-industrial levels, the heatwaves that hit India and Pakistan in 2015 killing thousands will occur on an annual basis. Parts of America, Europe, and Asia will be badly affected by flooding caused by heavy rainfall and other regions will be hit by drought. As many as 18% of insects, 16% of plants, and 8% of vertebrates are likely to face extinction and the oxygen levels in oceans will fall to a level that will not be fit for aquatic life. Food shortages will affect every continent and economic development will gradually fall.

What impact might the Climate Law have?

According to the European Commission, a 55% decrease in GHG emissions would reduce air pollution by 60% by 2030 compared to the 2015 level. This would improve the health of Europeans and help to preserve biodiversity. In terms of figures, the European Commission has specified:

  • Costs to cover damage to health would be reduced by at least 110 billion euro compared to 2015
  • The cost of air pollution control would be cut by at least 5 billion euro
  • The decrease in fossil fuel imports would help to save 100 billion euro in the next decade and up to 3 trillion euros by 2050.