The EU deadlock on 2050 climate goals adds uncertainty to the emissions targets

The European Union likes to think of itself as at the vanguard of global efforts to combat the climate crisis, but its reputation took a battering on June 20 when its own leaders failed to agree zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The deadlock, at a Brussels EU summit, could have a major effect on the wider attempts to reach a worldwide deal on long-term emission targets. It could also add uncertainty to a transport sector already in turmoil as it tries to adapt to the changing environmental demands.

The debate reflected the growing public and political pressure to step up the fight against climate change. German Chancellor Angela Merkel added crucial momentum towards a deal when she endorsed, for the first time, the target. Earlier in June, Britain announced it will enshrine a new commitment to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 into law, marking a first among G7 nations facing increasingly severe impacts from the climate crisis. The Netherlands argued that a shift to green economy will create jobs. Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins said that the transition to low-carbon was “one hell of an opportunity.”

However, the EU ship can only move as fast as its slowest members. Coal-dependent Poland – backed by Hungary and the Czech Republic – felt that it would have to carry too much of the burden of transition to a green economy. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said European competitiveness could suffer if other countries, like China, failed to match their efforts. Since unanimity was needed, 24 of the 28 EU leaders chose instead to reflect support for the mid-century goal as a footnote in their final statement: “For a large majority of member states, climate neutrality must be achieved by 2050.”

The EU already has a target to cut greenhouse gases by at least 40% by 2030 compared with 1990 levels. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called on the bloc to aim for a 55% reduction of greenhouse gases by 2030. This position is backed by voters: Green parties made substantial gains in May’s European Parliament elections.

But it will cost money. The EU’s own projection says the bloc would have to invest an additional up to €290 billion per year in clean energy technology to achieve net-zero emissions.

If the EU fails to set a 2050 target, it could, of course, have an effect on the overall shift towards transport decarbonisation. Transport greenhouse gas emissions are still rising, and on track to become the single largest source of climate emissions in the EU. Britain’s independent climate advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, said in June that new petrol and diesel cars might need to be phased out by at least 2035 to meet its targets. But progress is slow, as there is no silver bullet to clean up transport, or other carbon heavy sectors. It will take lots of different actions, over a long time.

The wrangle with Poland and other coal-dependent countries is just one of the many issues that have to be resolved if the EU is to meet its climate ambitions. But it will be hard. It will cost money, and sacrifices will have to be made. But the EU deadlock will add to the uncertainty about what needs to be done – especially for the transport sector, which often is the focus of emissions-cutting demands.