energy & environment

The European Climate Law – significant or ceremonious?

The cornerstone of the European Green Deal, the Climate Law, presented on Wednesday 4 March, has been laid. However, to what degree will this legislation lead to meaningful change?

When Commission President von der Leyen presented her political agenda in September 2019, she put the European Green Deal forward as her top ambition. At its centre was the ambition to “enshrine into law” the goal of becoming a climate-neutral continent by 2050. In December, the Communication on the European Green Deal confirmed that the European Climate Law would “ensure that all EU policies contribute to the climate neutrality objective and that all sectors play their part.”

A risky responsibility for the Commission?

Following its presentation by the Commission on 4 March 2020, one can argue the European Climate Law does deliver on its core promise: setting out a 2050 target of reaching net neutrality in emissions reductions of greenhouse gasses within the EU. It also puts considerable emphasis on the responsibility of Member States in achieving this goal. More importantly, it gives few means to oblige the Member States to take the necessary steps towards it. The European Commission will have the power to set out a “trajectory” for reaching the goal of climate neutrality through a delegated act. Concretely, it means that the path would not be subject to the usual interinstitutional negotiations and that the Council and the Parliament would be limited to formulating objections to the delegated act in its entirety.

More ambiguous is the situation regarding the 2030 target. Before the law’s publication, there has been much debate about raising it from a 30 to 40 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (compared to the 1990 level). In the end, the Commission did not commit to a more ambitious intermediary target. Instead, it has merely mentioned the possibility of a higher reduction target of 50 to 55 per cent by 2030. The text promises to explore options for these increases by September 2020 and to assess by June 2021 what legislation must be amended to attain a 50 or 55 per cent target. For some, this lack of boldness on an intermediary threshold coming up soon downgrades the credibility of the EU’s commitment to climate neutrality.

A review process in parallel with the UN

Still, the European Climate Law is not merely a third rehash of the 2050 climate neutrality target backed up by the weight of the law. For one, it proposes to further integrate the EU’s policy cycle on climate policy within the framework set out by the Paris Agreement. Starting in 2023, the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC will undertake a so-called “global stocktake” every five years in which the collective progress towards achieving the purpose of the Paris Agreement and its long-term goals.

The Climate Law replicates the five-year cycle for a periodic assessment of the “collective progress” made by the Member States. This assessment will be complementary to the sustainability analysis, recently introduced but rejected by the Parliament, as part of the “greening” of the biannual European Semester. The Commission will have the leeway to make public recommendations to the Member States following the conclusions of the assessment. By making the Member States accountable for addressing these recommendations and responsible for justifying any decision not to do so, the Commission expects a more effective and credible implementation of the Climate Law. Moreover, within six months following the UN “global stocktake”, the Commission will have to review the European Union’s “trajectory”.

While this process makes for stable policymaking, it sits uncomfortably with the self-professed ambition to be a climate-leader. It is unclear why the choice hasn’t fallen on setting a higher pace to drive international ambition forward. Contrary to its narrative, the Climate Law has the EU being in step with everyone, rather than being one step ahead.

High expectations have been created to deliver on climate neutrality. These will be matched by great disillusionment if the Commission runs into the limits of its toolset.

Poor reception

The Commission has been tugged at from all sides to present either a more ambitious or less disturbing Climate Law. Even before its publication, it seemed that everyone involved would be equally unhappy with the balance struck.

In the European Parliament, intermediary targets were the main point of discussion in the runup to the Climate Law’s publication. Both Renew Europe, in the form of ENVI chair Pascal Canfin, and the S&D Group indicated that they want a 2040 intermediary target included. The Greens, going beyond this, have called for 2040 climate neutrality and a 65 per cent reduction of emissions by 2030. The EPP, on the contrary, has had no firm position on intermediary targets. However, following the proposal’s publication, it came out strongly against the increase of the Commission’s power. Next to intermediary targets, maintaining its institutional control might become a focal point for the Parliament as well.

Environmentalist groups have been mostly dismissive and characterised the Commission’s posture as counterfeit ambition. Most vocal was the opposition of climate activist Greta Thunberg, who described the proposal as a “surrender”. Others were not more forthcoming though: of the Green 10 – the leading environmental organisations on the European level, whom Timmermans met on the same day of the Climate Law’s publication – four were outspokenly negative on the Climate Law.

Key takeaways

The proposal will go through the ordinary legislative procedure, which should start as soon as possible. Next week Monday, a Commission statement on the Climate Law in the European Parliament plenary is foreseen. It is highly anticipated that the Commission will call for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 or 55 per cent compared to 1990 by 2030. This ambition will spur much debate about its feasibility and opportunity in the European Parliament, especially the willingness to upgrade the bloc’s competitiveness.

For one, the Commission’s proposal presents a careful yet real attempt to increase its power. The “trajectory” for achieving climate-neutrality is sufficiently undefined for the Commission to maximise its leeway and ability to lead the bloc towards carbon neutrality. This gives potential weight to the Commission’s authority to periodically review it through delegated acts. For this exact reason, several countries contested it at the Environment Council on 5 March.

The Climate Law proposal delivers on its most basic promise: to commit the EU to the task of becoming a climate-neutral economic powerhouse. Beyond that, aligning the EU’s climate policy with the Paris Agreement will prove the most novel feature. It remains to be seen whether the Commission’s suggestion to increase its powers will withstand the upcoming political process. Even if it acquires these powers, the question remains whether they will prove an asset or a liability. The Climate Law enables the shaming of the Member States but gives no options to the Commission beyond that. High expectations have been created to deliver on climate neutrality. These will be matched by great disillusionment if the Commission runs into the limits of its toolset.

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