E.U. Parliament Approves Climate Change Law ⁠– But Is It Enough?

On May 3rd, the European Parliament voted to approve the E.U.’s landmark climate change law, which European lawmakers had preliminarily agreed to back in April after months of intense debate. The law makes the bloc’s goal to cut emissions by at least 55% from 1990 levels by 2030 and eliminate net carbon emissions entirely by 2050 legally binding. Environmentalists in Parliament who had pushed for more ambitious goals were among those who voted against the law. Their attempts to set tougher targets were blocked by other lawmakers in April, under pressure to have the climate law wrapped up before a climate summit hosted by President Joe Biden later in the month, according to reports from Reuters and Greenpeace.

The European Climate Law faces only two more hurdles before entering into force, awaiting a vote from the full E.U. Assembly and final approval from each E.U. member state. The law is expected to pass both votes, which are scheduled for June. Adoption of the law marks the first step in implementing the European Green Deal, which, upon its unveiling in December 2019, was hailed by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as “Europe’s man on the moon moment.” By committing the E.U. to reaching climate neutrality by 2050, the European Green Deal aims to limit global temperature increases to 1.5º Celsius above pre-industrial levels, Reuters says, safely below the two-degree threshold outlined by the Paris Climate Agreement.

The law also mandates the formation of an independent board of scientific experts to advise on future climate policies, an interim emissions target for 2040, and a budget for determining E.U. emissions between 2030 and 2050.

The legislation’s primary focus is on air pollution, the Commission said on the 5th. Despite improvements in air quality in recent years, the European Environment Agency reports that over 379,000 premature deaths in the E.U. during 2018 were linked to exposure to particulate matter. “One of the big lessons we have learned from the COVID crisis is the close connection between human health and the health of the planet. At the moment, neither is doing well,” said E.U. Environment Commissioner Virginius Sinkevicius.

While rubber-stamping the European Climate Law is a step in the right direction, concerns remain over whether it will be enough to prevent climate catastrophe.

The 55% net emissions target set by the new law translates to only a 52.8% reduction in real emissions due to the contribution of carbon sinks, according to a report from Greenpeace. A comprehensive analysis by the Climate Action Tracker states that emissions reductions of between 58% and 70% are needed if the E.U.’s efforts are to be compatible with the Paris Agreement’s two-degree target, below which the worst impacts of climate change can still be avoided. Felix Landerer, who studies sea levels and ice at N.A.S.A.’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said that crossing the two-degree threshold is “an experiment you don’t want to run.” The European Parliament’s push to reduce emissions by 60% by 2030 would have been in keeping with this element of the Paris Agreement, says the CAT.

The European Union has been a leader in international environmental politics since the formation of the E.U. Environmental Policy in 1972. It was one of the first organizations to recognize climate change as a “threat multiplier”⁠ – a catalyst for violence, border conflicts, disease outbreaks, resource security threats, and territorial disputes, the OWP reports. With fears that Union-wide emissions targets will fall short of their objectives, it may fall to individual member states to take initiative. On the 5th, Germany, the bloc’s biggest economy and, according to Our World in Data, seventh largest carbon emitter in the world as of 2019, approved legislation for more ambitious reduction targets. The country plans to cut its carbon emissions by 65% from 1990 levels by 2030 and to reach carbon neutrality by 2045, five years early.

With the ancillary requirements to set an interim target for 2040 and define an emissions budget for 2030-2050, there is hope, not only that other E.U. members will follow Germany’s lead, but that more ambitious goals will replace the current 55% emissions reduction target. Alongside its criticism of the new law, the Greenpeace report noted that the formation of an independent scientific advisory board provides an opportunity for greater scrutiny and rigor in the creation of future E.U. climate policies. Other critics of the new law, including WWF, also point to the “Fit for 55” package⁠ – a set of energy regulations and policies that the European Commission will propose in June⁠ – as a vehicle for introducing more ambitious targets. It remains to be seen whether the E.U. will rise above scoring political points to ensure that its new climate law delivers on its promises.

Caleb Loughrin