The EU’s latest zero emissions plan will cost billions, but it could save the planet

“This will hurt, but it is worth it”. That, in essence, is what the European Commission said last November 28thas it unveiled its much-anticipated strategy on how the European Union should cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It is a bold and ambitious plan, with huge implications for transport, and it will cost billions of euros. But it might just save the Earth.

EU Energy and Climate Action Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete, who presented the strategy, said that the EU should become fully climate neutral. That means the EU must absorb as much greenhouse gases as it puts out. The Commission’s analysis is that cutting carbon emissions to zero could require up to €290 billion a year in additional investment in Europe. But it could also boost growth by up to 2 percent of GDP between 2030 and 2050. And it could help cut fossil fuel imports, saving between €2-3 trillion up to 2050, and bring health benefits of around €200 billion.

The strategy was released the day after a United Nations report warned that global efforts to tackle climate change are way off track, as it recorded the first rise in carbon dioxide emissions in four years. It also comes just days before negotiators from 195 countries meet in the Polish city of Katowice to negotiate the rules to implement the landmark 2015 UN Paris climate change agreement.

The strategy addresses the challenges in different sectors of the economy including power generation, industry, farming and construction. But it is the transport sector that faces the biggest shift as it currently relies largely on fossil fuels.


Integrated system approach

Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc said that if Europe is to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, it would need an integrated system approach. This means promoting:

  • overall vehicle efficiency, low and zero emission vehicles and infrastructure;
  • a long-term switch to alternative and net-zero carbon fuels for transport;
  • increased efficiency of the transport system through digital technologies, smart pricing and more multi-modal integration.

The strategy says there is no single fuel solution for the future of low-carbon mobility, but different options are more suitable for different transport modes. It also urges changes in behaviour to shift from private transportation to low-carbon public transport, shared mobility and zero-carbon mobility (biking, walking).

The EU’s efforts to change are already biting. Over the past few weeks, France has been gripped by the so-called ‘yellow jacket’ protests against high fuel prices. The protesters, mainly drivers and hauliers, have blocked highways and set up burning barricades as they rail against the French carbon tax, which adds about 10 euro cents to each litre of petrol and diesel. But this could be just the beginning, if the EU goes further in its efforts to move away from fossil fuels.

Setting a target for zero emissions by 2050 is a huge step: it effectively means ending the era of the internal combustion engine for cars and trucks – as well as transforming other transport sectors like maritime and air.

The EU currently has a binding target of cutting emissions by at least 40 percent by the end of 2030. The Commission says it is not enough. Arias Cañete says it is worth becoming the first major economy to fully decarbonise – and he insists that it is doable.