Europe struggles to balance emission cuts with political realities 

Chief Europe Correspondent
A see saw with a wind-powered hydrogen plant on one side and a tractor on the other, with the stars of the European Union behind it.
Illustration by Nadya Nickels.

A fight is brewing in the European Union over how best and how fast to slash carbon emissions in the decades ahead. It’s pitting climate science against political dynamics, industrial competitiveness and citizens’ angst just months ahead of EU parliamentary elections. 

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, is expected to back a call to reduce 90% of the bloc’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 from 1990 levels. The ambitious interim goal would pave the EU’s path to climate neutrality by the middle of the century as enshrined by the European Green Deal.  

The goal follows advice from the EU’s climate science advisers and supporters describe it as crucial for maintaining the EU’s climate leadership and credibility. But it also comes with a reality-check: the 27 member countries are collectively behind in meeting their current climate goals, the public’s appetite for more stringent climate policies is waning and the Continent is still reeling from the effects of the 2022 energy crisis. 

“The key will be to frame climate as part of the solution and not something that operates as a silo or in a parallel track to advancing the [industrial] competitiveness and social agenda,” said Elisa Giannelli, program lead on climate governance and EU politics at environmental think tank E3G. 

Eleven EU capitals, including those in France, Germany, Spain and Denmark, sent a letter to the Commission at the end of January, calling for “an ambitious climate target for 2040.” It’s not clear where all countries stand on the 2040 target ambition, but some, like Hungary, appear more cautious. 

The Commission is set to present its views on the 2040 target on February 6. The document, while not binding, will set the stage for an initial debate of the measure with member governments in the coming months.  

The February document is set to reflect the Commission’s commitment to strong climate action, but crafting the policies to achieve this vision will take years. A formal legislative proposal will land after the formation of a new Commission and European Parliament following the EU election in June.  

“If you sell it as an industrial plan for Europe, then you can speak about the competitiveness vis-a-vis China and the U.S. and how the cleantech becomes cheaper,” said Linda Kalcher, executive director at the Brussels-based consultancy Strategic Perspectives. “If you sell it as an energy security plan, with affordable renewables produced at home, then you are more resilient and less dependent Russia — economics start playing in your favor.” 

The EU election is expected to yield more seats for populist, right-wing parties, and losses for center-left and green parties in the European Parliament, which could make passing ambitious climate change policies harder, according to a study commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank published at the end of January. 

Europe is not the only region where upcoming elections could impact the speed and scale of climate action over the next few years. This year is projected to be the world’s biggest year ever for elections, with more than 60 countries going to the polls. Look no further than the United States to see what could be at stake: The leading candidate for the Republican nomination is former president Donald Trump, who withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement during his previous term in office. 

As Europe mulls its 2040 goals, the bloc is already on course to miss its existing climate targets because countries are implementing green policies too slowly, according to a January assessment from the European Scientific Advisory Board on Climate Change, which advises the EU.  

The group said the EU needs to accelerate its emissions cuts, with a leading scientist arguing “we cannot afford to lean back now.” 

The bloc has committed to slashing emissions 55% by 2030 but taken together countries’ current plans would only amount to a total 49 to 51% reduction. Updated plans are expected in the summer. 

In their January report, the EU scientists warned the bloc must slash production and consumption of products such as meat, dairy and eggs if it wants to meet the recommended 2040 target. It also suggested Europeans should adopt a more sustainable lifestyle, by, for example, moving into smaller apartments or driving less. 

That’s not what people want to hear.  

Farmers across Europe have taken to the streets over the last several weeks, most recently in Germany and France, complaining about rising fuel costs and concerns the green transition will affect their work — concerns right-wing groups are catering to ahead of the elections.   

The Continent is also still grappling with the fallout from the energy crisis triggered by a cut in natural gas supplies from Russia after it invaded Ukraine. Energy prices are more stable now but remain much higher than before the war, affecting both individual households and industry. 

Carbon-intensive sectors like steel and chemicals have also warned a too ambitious target that doesn’t come with sufficient financial support to help companies decarbonize their operations could lead to factories relocating abroad to regions with less stringent regulations.   

These dynamics highlight the struggle in bridging the gap between Brussels’ bureaucratic target-setting and putting things into action on the ground during politically sensitive times. 

Convincing people across the Continent that keeping up ambitious climate action will be a net positive for their lives will be crucial leading up to the elections this summer. 

“This is one of the challenges of promising more climate action during an election time,” Giannelli said, “how to reassure people they won’t be asked to eat less meat or use cars less from one day to another.” 

“These are systematic changes that will be put in place gradually,” Giannelli added.  

Reports on leaked drafts of the 2040 document indicate the direction the Commission may go. Measures to reduce emissions from sectors with large climate and social impacts, like agriculture, transport and buildings, are expected to feature in the Commission’s 2040 document in a more significant way than they have in past proposals. 

Carbon removals, potentially via direct air capture and carbon sequestration by planting trees, are also expected to play a more prominent role in achieving steep emissions cuts as well.  

Financing the path to the 2040 goal would also require fresh cash, a challenge the EU is already struggling with amid an increasingly tight cleantech competition from the U.S. and China.  

The EU must invest about €1.5 trillion a year between 2031 and 2050 to meet its mid-century net-zero emission target, Financial Times reported, based on a draft of the plan.